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Film / My Brilliant Career

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My Brilliant Career is a 1979 film directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is a headstrong young woman growing up in Australia near the end of the 19th century. She has dreams of being a great writer, dreams that do not impress her parents, cattle ranchers in the Australian outback. Her parents, flailing for something to do with a daughter that has no romantic prospects and clearly loathes ranching, send her off to live with her wealthy grandmother. She has various suitors, the best of the bunch being young Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). Harry loves her and eventually asks her to marry him, and Sybylla develops feelings for Harry as well. However, she remains torn between her love for Harry and her desire to be a writer, and the conflict between being a career woman and getting married.

Based on a 1901 semi-autobiographical novel by note Miles Franklin.


  • Abhorrent Admirer: Frank Hawdon, the "jackaroo"—basically an Australian apprentice sheep rancher—who takes a shine to Sybylla. In one scene he gives her a bouquet of flowers. She accepts, then after he walks away, chucks the flowers into a lake.
  • Career Versus Man: The central dilemma, as Sybylla has to balance her feelings for Harry with her desire to be a career woman. Marriage and having a career are two things that don't go together well in Australia at the end of the Victorian era. A relatively unusual example of this trope in that the film ends with the woman choosing only a career (and in Real Life Miles Franklin never married).
  • Childish Pillow Fight: Despite the fact that they aren't children, Sybylla and Harry manage to have one of these, running through the mansion and around the grounds, whacking each other with pillows.
  • Dances and Balls: Harry throws a ball on his estate. When Harry tries to make Sybylla jealous by dancing with another girl at the fancy society ball, Sybylla makes him jealous by leaving and dancing at the working-class ball nearby.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The first scene has Sybylla composing a book called My Brilliant Career, chewing thoughtfully on her pen, and writing sentences like "I have always known I belonged to the world of art." This, while she's sitting in a ranch house in the Australian outback as a sand storm is kicking up and the rest of her family is struggling to get the cattle to shelter. Both her ambitions and her misfit status within the family are established.
  • Headbutt of Love: Ironically, given at the end between Sybylla and Frank as she reveals that she doesn't love him and will devote herself to her career.
  • Land Poor: Although it's not quite established why he's so poor, Harry reveals to Sybylla that he's going to have to close up his estate because the bank is going to foreclose. He calls himself "a poor man".
  • Meet Cute: Harry walks up on Sybylla while she's sitting in a tree. She has to frantically pat down her skirt to prevent him from seeing her bloomers.
  • Mistaken for Servant: When Harry first meets Sybylla he takes her for a servant on the estate. She doesn't bother to contradict him, which makes for an amusingly uncomfortable second meeting at Sybylla's grandmother's dinner party.
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Harry and Sybylla are having one of these when Harry loses his balance (because Sybylla purposefully rocks it), overturning the boat and throwing them both into the lake.
  • Small Town Boredom: Sybylla chafes at life on a lonely cattle ranch in the Outback.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: Sybylla is swinging on a tree swing while Harry and his mother, looking on from a distance, discuss her suitability as a life partner.
  • Title Drop: My Brilliant Career is the title of Sybylla's own book that she's writing.
    "I make no apology for being egotistical, because I am."
  • Voiceover Letter: While Sybylla is working as a governess for some awful children at a filthy pig farm, we hear a voiceover letter from her aunt explaining that Sybylla's going to be stuck there.