Thursday, December 17, 2009

Forgotten Feminist Films: My Brilliant Career

So I've been watching a lot of things on IFC lately. Thank you IFC! You are an underemployed person's true friend--you brought me Heathers and Ginger Snaps which I promise I am going write about soon!

It also brought my My Brilliant Career, a quirky Australian movie starring a very young (and fantastic) Judy Davis, and a Sam Neill who is so young that he is actually handsome. But still boring! Just, in a handsome way.

Now, it should be said that I have never gone in for the domestic English novel of manners. (Which according to Mikhail Bakhtin, is what the novel is really about.) To this day, I have never finished a novel by Jane Austen or George Eliot, and only one by Henry James (The American, a second-tier work of his.) This is very likely due in part to my upbringing--back in the day when I was still, shall we say, confused about who I was, novels about who was going to marry whom and why that would be a disaster simply didn't resonate. And while I regret not having made my peace with Austen, for the most part I've kept this prejudice even into my transition.

So I wasn't necessarily excited about My Brilliant Career, which shapes up early to be a rather typical story of the rough-around-the-edges outsider girl who charms the rich and reserved bachelor. (Sounds like Pride and Prejudice, fercryinoutloud.) Indeed, I only recorded it because the synopsis indicated it was about a woman struggling to be a writer at the turn of the century. So I kept at it, and I am glad I did.

Because Davis' Sybylla Melvyne isn't just a stand-in for Elizabeth Bennett. Twice, handsome Sam Neill (it feels odd typing that) proposes to her, and twice...she turns him down. Even when the second time it would literally lifted her out of the mud. And that's just the beginning of the charm of this film.

Everyone, you see, is onboard telling Sybylla that she can't expect more--can't expect a love match for her marriage, can't expect a career, can't expect not to pay a huge price if she is so indulgent as to pursue one. "Loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence," says Sam Neill's mother, the closest thing to a genuine parent figure she has. But Sybylla doesn't listen; and if early on her refusals are little more than temper tantrums, over time she learns how to rely upon herself to persevere, eventually publishing a novel based on her experiences. (In real life, Miles Franklin published the novel the film is based on while in her early twenties, and it became a classic for its brutally honest portrayal of life in the Australian bush.)

Plus the movie is a pleasure to watch. Director Gillian Armstrong--who would go on to do the 1990s remake of Little Women--finds beauty in almost every frame of the movie. Plus she is unafraid to make interesting choices: an outdoors pillow fight between Neill and Davis lasts a good five minutes, is stunning, and despite the lack of dialogue manages to capture Sybylla's attraction to Neill's Harry, and at the same time her fears of giving up all her dreams before she even knows what they are.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give the movie is this: after I finished watching it, I started to read Pride and Prejudice.

1 comment:

  1. If it's any consolation, Mark Twain had an aversion to those kinds of novels, too. Of Jane Austen, he said (among other bon mots):

    "I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

    My Brilliant Career is an awesome movie, by the way. I SO wish that it was Gillian Armstrong, and not Jane Campion, who was the best known female director from the Antipodes. I think she's more consistently brilliant.

    Happy Holidays,