My Brilliant Career, the 1979 film responsible for the careers of Judy Davis and Sam Neill and the feature film debut of director Gillian Armstrong, feels like a gift wrapped long ago but newly discovered. This tale of a young woman discovering her purpose in late 19th-century Australia is as vital and urgent as any of the well-remembered films of the 1970's but is all the more remarkable for having been made by unknowns entirely outside of the Hollywood system. My Brilliant Career is also one of the best films I've ever seen about a female main character, and it's certainly deserving of being more widely remembered than it seems to be today. Based on a novel by Miles Franklin published in 1901, My Brilliant Career is the story of a young, would-be writer named Sybylla (Davis) growing up in the bush with literary ambitions and no immediate prospects of marriage. Sybylla is sent to live with her wealthy grandmother (Wendy Hughes) and other relatives to avoid becoming an economic drain on her family, and that time away helps her cement an indomitable sense of self. A possible future arrives in the person of Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a neighbor with property who's smitten by Sybylla's independent spirit. My Brilliant Career is as much a movie about economics as it is a love story - it reminds me of Jane Campion's Bright Star in that respect - and Armstrong (working from a screenplay by Eleanor Witcombe) is very specific about the pressures on Sybylla and the reasons that Harry may be a godsend. Armstrong and Witcombe are also resolute about honoring the point that marriage to Harry is truly a choice for Sybylla, and not a necessity.
Judy Davis pops up in movies these days as a brittle comedienne, but in My Brilliant Career she's something very different and an absolute wonder. The first meeting between Sybylla and Harry is a classic, with Harry assuming Sybylla is a servant and Sybylla playing along by affecting an Irish accent. Davis is very good at capturing the fine shades of Sybylla's roiling emotions and one wonders if other roles in this vein were available to her and if not then why. Only a few years later Davis was playing Adela in A Passage to India, not exactly one of literature's great wild spirits. Watching the way Gillian Armstrong films Australia (verdant, empty, a little scary) makes me wonder what she could do with a Western. My Brilliant Career is a gorgeous film; its cinematography (by Donald McAlpine) and production design are detailed but never feel stiff. When there's so much sameness in film it's a joy to discover a work as fresh and open as My Brilliant Career, a film that still has much to say to audiences and to the way that other films depict their female characters.