Sunday, March 24, 2013

Free Spirit

Film: My Brilliant Career
Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

There is a character in many a period drama that I almost always dislike. That character is the “free-spirited,” independent woman. I tend to dislike this character because in the movies, free-spirited usually translates as bitchy and unpleasant. I appreciate strong female characters and I like independence. But there’s an attitude with these characters that is a bit like biting down on a piece of tinfoil for me. So I tend to be leery of them. When I discovered that a character like this was at the center of My Brilliant Career, I went in with a number of reservations.

I needn’t have. Our main character, Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is fun to be around. She’s the sort of independent I like. She’s a true free spirit, someone who wants something more than what life as a young woman in late 19th century Australia typically offers. I understand her desire to want something more than a loveless marriage that may or may not work out. Sybylla claims to be bright and clever but physically ugly, which isn’t really true. She’s not even movie ugly. In fact, the biggest problem I see with her is that she has too damn many y’s in her name.

Anyway, Sybylla has no interest in a marriage. She’d like a career, but of course actual careers for women in the time and place are not really available. More than anything, she doesn’t want a marriage, since she assumes that the only sort of marriage available to her is one that will ultimately be unpleasant and unsatisfying. Her mother (Julia Blake) decides that the family can no longer afford her, and decides to send her off to work as a servant elsewhere. Sybylla is saved from this fate (albeit temporarily) by being asked to visit her grandmother (Aileen Britton).

It is here that, despite the claim of her plainness, Sybylla is pursued by two men. The first is Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb), who would like to marry her despite her complete indifference to him. The second is a bigger issue. He is Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), the son of a wealthy family. The two are immediately taken with each other and a sort of love blossoms between them. For her, the love is something she wants to deny—she wants to claim that the two of them are merely friends, but she’s jealous around him, and it’s evident that he’s fallen for her pretty hard. But the real truth is that despite her growing love for Harry, she still wants her own life and wants it on her own terms.

Eventually, Harry does ask her to marry him, and she denies him, telling him to wait two years until she finds out about herself a little more. As it turns out, her father has made a bad business deal and owes a great deal of money to a neighbor for a loan he can’t repay. To repay at least the interest, Sybylla is forced to act as a governess to his wild, uneducated, illiterate children. This section of the film is mercifully brief—we gather that the kids are painfully awful and that Sybylla slowly takes charge of them and civilizes them a bit before they send her away, believing that she is in love with their oldest son.

And then Harry returns. It’s been two years after all. The resolution of this is best left to first-time viewers. I won’t spoil it.

What I assumed at first would be the biggest drawback of this film, the one thing that would make me look back on this film as an ordeal turned out to be by far the best part: Sybylla herself. As mentioned above, when someone tells me that the main character of a film is a headstrong woman, I immediately think “harridan.” Sybylla shows there’s a way to be independent and headstrong without being unlikable. I completely get her as a character and understand her plight and her desire for a better life totally.

The rest of the film is pleasant enough—well filmed and attractive (although the copy I got has seen some better days and there were a few spots I was worried the tape might break). It’s nothing spectacular, but also nothing worth complaining about.

No, the first, last, and main reason to spend time with My Brilliant Career is just how damned entertaining Sybylla is. She’s genuine, believable, and completely understandable as a character and as a person. I’m a fan when a character comes to the screen who is personality first, gender second. Sybylla is as close to that as she can get, given the historical setting. She’s modern in a lot of ways. She’s resolute rather than being demanding. She’s even pleasant in her desires rather than stomping her feet if she doesn’t get what she wants.

I’m a convert on this one. I expected a rough ride, and the roughest part was a VHS copy starting to go to seed. That, friends and neighbors, is a good night at the movies.

Why to watch My Brilliant Career: A free-spirited character that’s actually worth liking.
Why not to watch: Sybylla’s nyme hys tyy myny y’s yn yt.


  1. Headstrong without being unlikable. Personality first, gender second. I'd agree with both. I really liked film on first watch, wasn't quite as great on rewatch. The theme is dated, but there are comparisons to contemporary life of finding your path in life.
    toyo manyy yyyys in her name (:

    1. "Sybylla" looks like the sort of name parents who want their child to feel special give their kids.

      I'll put this on the same level of film as Muriel's Wedding. I didn't expect I'd like it, and I did.

  2. "Sybylla" as a name always reminds me of the female lead from "Kind Hearts and Coronets." Wasn't she named the same? (now I want to watch/review Kind Hearts and Coronets...)

    I really refrain from bagging too much on oddly spelled yet traditional names... I'm hardly one to talk...

    ANYWAY, this movie. Yes. I'm glad you enjoyed its heroine, I liked her too. I mean, this movie didn't blow me out of the water either, but I enjoyed my time with it. I like your point about how Sybylla is hardly ugly even though she says she is. Ah, movie standards... I don't understand.

    Even in this film, I was always aware of the contrast between society and nature - that has popped up as being a pretty big theme in the Australian films I've seen.

    The standout point to me for "My Brilliant Career" was the ending. It surprised me, it caught me off guard, and I give it/Sybylla credit for not taking the easy way out. I respect that.

    Plus Sam Neill is hot.

    1. Actually, your name is spelled traditionally, and I have no issue with it. You're not the only Siobhan I know. The woman in Kind Hearts and Coronets spelled it Sibella, which I don't have issue with. I just see a lot of people naming their kids with random y's. There are times when it makes perfect sense--it's a traditional spelling or a family spelling (my friend Doug's son Gavyn being a case in point). But I'm always going to look strangely at a kid named Chrystophyr or Alyxzandyr (and as a teacher, I've seen far weirder).

      I liked the ending as well. More importantly, I like that Sybylla likes the ending, or likes where she got to. Regrets? Maybe. Problems? No--she's happy with her life, or at least content with it.

  3. I go back and forth on whether I like Sybyalla--it matters what mood I'm in. Judy Davis always seems to play characters in a way that allows viewers to embrace them. Still, I don't know that the only drawback to the film is too many Ys in her name. For me, it drags at times.

  4. I have no problem with free-spirited characters; in fact, I often enjoy them (i.e. Amelie). Self centered and selfish characters however, really bug me. Sybylla falls into that camp. There was absolutely no need for her to string the guy along, except on the off chance that she might need to use him for something in the future. Had she had the slightest respect for him, or had the slightest amount of human decency, she would have realized her selfishness. Or perhaps she did realize what she was doing and she just didn't care - making her a sociopath. And yes, I would be writing the exact same thing if the genders were reversed.

    1. @Kim--It never dragged for me. Maybe it will on a rewatch.

      @Chip--I didn't see her as stringing him along. I thought she was entirely honest with him the whole time--after all, he's the one who avoided her a number of times and then canoodled with her sister. I'm completely on her side with this.

    2. I thoroughly disliked her character, to the point that her having to suffer with the miserable little children gave me a small measure of satisfaction. She finally had to do something for someone else, instead of just doing only what she wanted. Unfortunately, as you pointed out it didn't last that long and she didn't appear to learn anything about caring for others from it.

      Sorry to keep going on about this after my initial post, but the more I thought about the movie and that character the more I started to get irritated with her all over again. Sometimes I wish I could forget movies more quickly than I do.

      By the way, I could have cancelled this reply, but I took a page from Sybylla's book and decided that I just knew that the world deserved to read my writings and that I owed it to all of them to leave them here intact. (sarcasm on my part - sincerety on Sybylla's)

      I'm not trying to convert you. I guess I just really had my button pushed (by her, not you) and I needed to vent a little. Once again, sorry.

    3. No apology necessary. For me, it's a case of attitude. I look at her and see someone dedicated to her own happiness provided it's not aggressively at the expense of anyone else (I know you see that differently--I'm just saying this is my take on it). She's not willing to live her life at the whim of someone else. I can respect that completely. Sybylla never asks that anyone else accept what she wants, only that they allow her to live as she wishes.

      Contrast that with the Joan Webster character in I Know Where I'm Going!. I find her superior and unpleasant, mostly because she does as she pleases and demands that everyone else take note of it, accept it, and become charmed by it. So for me it's not so important how she acts, but how she reacts to others. Sybylla is never mean or demanding--she's just firm.

  5. It's always fun to discover new words – thank you for »harridan«!

  6. My DVR is overflowing! I still have several documentaries from November that I haven't watched. (Only one of them is from the List.) But TCM (and FXM and MOVIES!) just keep showing movies I want to see. Myrna Loy as Star of the Month isn't helping a bit!

    Last night I watched My Brilliant Career. I've been wanting to see this for quite a while. It was worth the wait. Judy Davis and Sam Neil are both great! (As are the many supporting Australian actors who I don't know.) Judy Davis is amazing. I'm going to have to seek out more of her movies but I'm not sure what's good aside from Passage to India and Husbands and Wives, both of which I've seen.

    I'm trying to get my brother to watch it by telling him it's the Australian Room with a View. That's not quite right, but it's better than telling him it's the Australian Enchanted April. (He loves Enchanted April.)

  7. Husbands and Wives is still on my watchlist. I have to say I'd be mildly more intrigued by an Australian Room with a View than Enchanted April, which I thought had a great premise and a great cast and did nothing with it.

  8. In 2018 Criterion released a beautifully restored copy. It was gorgeous to look and may be worth a rewatch.