Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Brilliant Career (Armstrong. 1979)

"I make no apologies for sounding egotistical...because I am!"

My Brilliant Career is a movie that features an unlikeable, selfish and ultimately uninteresting protagonist. If I were to say that I hated Sybylla it would be a massive understatement. She is a lazy, egotistical and seemingly morally exempt tease who does not deserve any of the attention that she gets in the film. Her career is not brilliant. It is deplorable. I have read that she is supposed to be a positive role model for women, but I would never want my daughter to act the way she does.

The movie is set in the completely random Australian outback in the year 1897. Sybylla lives with her lower-class family who struggles with significant issues due to a drought and a general lack of money. Sybylla is doing nothing to contribute to her family life, and her mother decides that they can no longer afford to support her. Her mother practically begs her to take a job as a servant, but Sybylla refuses to cooperate. Where I come from, you do what you have to do to help support the family. There is one strike against Sybylla and the movie has only been on for 10 minutes.

Played by Judy Davis, Sybylla is a horribly defined role model for young women. After refusing to assist her family in their debt, she is shipped off to live with her wealthy grandmother, aunt and uncle in hopes that she will be taught the proper way to act. Do not get me wrong, I am not in favor of any kind of arranged marriages, but the way she treats her potential suitors is simply inexcusable. She is so desperate to maintain her independence that she basically isolates every member of her family. She mentions that she would like to be a pianist, but does nothing to pursue it. She then decides to be a famous writer – big dreams.

I have another major problem with Sybylla that may not resonate with My Brilliant Career’s mostly-female target audience. In the movie, Judy Davis is ugly. Her hair is constantly frizzy and she has an extremely distracting sore on her lower lip. She almost always looks dumpy when compared to the other women in the film. This almost completely evaporates any shred of believability that the movie could have had. Young, rich and handsome men do not incessantly pursue poor girls with facial sores. At the very least – they didn’t in 1897. That is strike two against Sybylla.

She eventually falls in love with a wealthy childhood friend named Harry. She stays as a guest at his estate. She makes no qualms over enjoying the free food, company and entertainment that being a houseguest provides. Harry asks Sybylla to marry him. She turns him down saying that she needs to discover herself and “what is wrong with the world”. She then promises to marry him after two years. Her refusal to marry the man she claims to love is the final straw for her frustrated grandmother. She sends Sybylla off to work as a governess for an almost illiterate family in the slums. Her father owes the man money, so she must work for no pay. Of course, she initially refuses. She is forced to actually do some work for a change, and she is miserable doing it.

After two years she returns home and almost immediately runs into Harry. He has put his entire life on hold in the hopes that what Sybylla promised will eventually come true. “Did you discover what was wrong with the world?” he asks. She answers “yes”. He, the wealthy and handsome man who had been teased by an awful lady, asks for Sybylla’s hand in marriage. SHE SAYS NO?!

Maybe I am just offended by this because poor Harry put his ambitions and goals on hold for the woman that he loves. The idea of doing that offends me on every fundamental level. It could also upset me because Sybylla continually tells Harry that she loves him, but will not marry him out of her own selfish reasons. She wants to be a famous author and cannot jeopardize her career goals by becoming a wife. Apparently writers cannot work from home in 1897 Australia. I had no idea.

After finishing My Brilliant Career, and being seriously upset with the ending, I wondered if maybe I was just being sexist. I immediately hit the message boards to see what other people, women specifically, thought of the Sybylla character. From what I gathered, nobody really agrees with the way she treated Harry. It was coldhearted and cruel. Some commended her for staying true to herself in a time of forced societal conformity, but if she never wanted to conform – why did she promise that she would? It seemed like she was more interested in teasing Harry. There is nothing positive about that. Strike three for Sybylla.

Gillian Armstrong is a director who probably loved reading “Pride and Prejudice” in high school. She is most famous for movies like Little Women (1994) and Charlotte Gray (2001). This leads me to believing that I simply miss the point of My Brilliant Career based on the fact that I have a penis, but a good movie should be able to appeal to every audience. Once the end credits started rolling, I realized that I would never get those two hours back. I watched an entire movie about a self-centered, man-hating nonconformist who never grows or learns anything in the end.

My Brilliant Career: D

*NOTE* - If you are a creepy cat lady who lives on her own and hates men, you will probably love this movie.


  1. I apologise if this blogpost is old, but I feel compelled to comment. You wrote exactly how I feel after watching a movie about a person (who happens to be female) treat everyone around her callously or thoughtlessly with absolutely no growth at all. And the inexplicable way she treats Harry!... if she wasn't interested, she should have said so. If she was but wanted to keep her independence - what independence? She was reliant on her family who lived in poverty. She had no say in how to live her life at all! And the lip thing? I just could not understand what was happening there.
    And for context, I am a 'creepy' cat lady who is a passionate feminist

  2. Oh my gosh... 2 hours wasted... I only started liking her with 30 min left of the movie. I liked EVERYONE else... just not her. The movie like the character, was awkward and selfish. If her aunt could have the most beautiful hair in the world why was hers the worst? It seemed like (apparently) quite a large/long novel (?), but they had to chop it all done? Perhaps in the novel there is better character development.
    This movie reminded me of an 1897 version of someone trying to be Jane Austen in the outback. Although I have a high regard for the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, the 2005 version I still don't like Jane... *the lead*. It's only because of Mr Darcy that I could get through it. Again, selfish me-centered person, who learns to love and change her views of others. This movie? I'm not so sure. She learned to love and... said "I love you, but would destroy you...". Well then, life spared then?

    And yes I have cats. I hope I'm not creepy. And I definitely don't hate men.