Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

My Brilliant Career (1979)

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clip 'You have a wildness of spirit' education content clip 1, 2, 3

Original classification rating: G. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

While staying with her well-to-do grandmother, Sybylla (Judy Davis) has a crisis about her looks. Her Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) tells her to stop looking in mirrors and tries to make her more feminine. Suitor Frank Hawden (Robert Grubb) offers a gift of flowers.

Curator’s notes

Funny and still topical sequence about self-image and self-confidence, ending with a powerful image showing Sybylla’s ‘wildness of spirit’. Water imagery carries forward throughout the film, representing a kind of feminine energy. Note the almost impressionist look to the scene by the lake.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) at Caddagat, her wealthy grandmother’s home, embarking on a beauty regimen that is overseen by the refined and gracious Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes). Later, in an idyllic scene by the river, a transformed Sybylla sits beneath a tree reading a book. When suitor Frank Hawden (Robert Grubb) appears with flowers she graciously accepts them, but throws them into the river once he is out of frame. As rain begins to fall Sybylla is joyful, oblivious to her soaking dress or her ruined book, straw hat and gloves.

Educational value points

  • The film My Brilliant Career is based on the 1901 semi-autobiographical novel by Miles Franklin and is considered a classic of Australian cinema. It charts the growing self-awareness of the headstrong and passionate 16-year-old Sybylla Melvyn and her desire to escape the drudgery and genteel poverty of her family’s dairy farm to make something of herself. She defies social convention and spurns the offer of marriage from a wealthy suitor in favour of independence and the chance to pursue a career as a writer.
  • Sybylla’s concerns about her appearance have been identified by the film’s director Gillian Armstrong as an important subtext of the film. The director wanted to show that Sybylla’s insecurities about her looks have no real basis. According to Armstrong, Sybylla discovers 'that she doesn’t fit into conventional ideas of beauty – she went through a process that every woman goes through at puberty of suddenly realising how important their looks are, and how they’re meant to be this or that’.
  • In this period, pale soft skin was associated with refinement and with the leisured or upper classes, and girls were encouraged to make the most of their looks within the strict confines of the day in order to be more marriageable. Their only chance of social or economic advancement was through making a 'good’ match. Sybylla’s beauty regimen is an attempt to counter the coarsening effects of farm work and the parasol, sunhat and gloves are intended protect her from the sun.
  • Sybylla tossing the flowers into the river and her reaction to the rain would have been considered very 'unladylike’ in the 1890s. Unlike Aunt Helen, Sybylla does not conform to conventional standards of femininity that required women to be passive and contained. Sybylla cannot repress her spirited, rebellious behaviour and Aunt Helen can only explain her actions as a 'wildness of spirit’.
  • The drought that is referred to in the clip became known as the 'Federation Drought’ and affected much of Australia from 1895 until 1902. It resulted in huge cattle and sheep losses and the virtual loss of the 1902 Australian wheat crop, crippling many farmers. Possum Gully, the Melvyns’ farm, which is based on a property Franklin’s family owned near Goulburn in New South Wales, is severely drought affected and this helps explain Sybylla’s excitement at the coming of the rain.
  • The clip provides an example of how place in the film is used to convey meaning. The film’s mise en scène works both pictorially to reproduce the period and dramatically to signify Sybylla’s development as a character. According to production designer, Luciana Arrighi, in the scenes at Caddagat the filmmakers set out to create 'a lush look to capture the life of the squattocracy’, and Caddagat, with its soft interiors, comfort and abundance, represents one possible future for Sybylla if she succumbs to it rather than pursuing a career.
  • The film’s pictorial quality was inspired by Australian painters such as Tom Roberts, George Lambert and Rupert Bunny. The filmmakers replicated the soft play of light used by these artists by shooting most of the exteriors in the early morning or the late afternoon so the light would be low and slanting. The influence of Bunny, who was renowned for his impressionistic depictions of women at leisure, is evident in the scene by the river. However this idyllic tableau is subverted when Sybylla tosses the flowers in the river, a gesture that suggests she is not seduced by mere beauty or flattery.
  • My Brilliant Career was Gillian Armstrong’s first feature film. Armstrong had only recently graduated from the Australian Television and Radio School when producer Margaret Fink approached her to direct the film. Its success established her as one of Australia’s leading directors and among her feature films are Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Little Women (1994), High Tide (1987) and Mrs Soffel (1984). The film also launched the careers of lead actors Judy Davis and Sam Neill.

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