Most humans are composed of flesh, blood, bone, and sinew, but it wouldn't be surprising to learn that singularly intense and brittle Australian actress Judy Davis is held together by piano wire. Whenever she enters a room, the tension immediately skyrockets, partly because she can level a character with a stinging quip or even a sharp look, but also because she suggests enormous fragility behind all that unnerving impetuosity. Through a miracle of timing, Davis landed the lead role in Gillian Armstrong's assured debut feature My Brilliant Career fresh out of performance school, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. As a turn-of-the-century rural spitfire with delusions of artistic and literary grandeur, Davis complicates her pointedly feminist heroine by underlining her self-absorption and emotional inaccessibility, qualities that keep her from seeming like just another lovable misfit. According to Armstrong, who contributes an absorbing commentary track to the new two-disc DVD, Davis actively disliked her character, and her refusal to ingratiate herself to some imagined audience shows remarkable courage for an actress just launching her career.
Based on Miles Franklin's novel, which drew heavily from her own experiences as a precocious young woman in a patriarchal society, My Brilliant Career refers to the imagined memoirs of an ambitious teenager who has yet to accomplish anything. Determined never to be like her mother, who married poor and leads a simple life with her family in the Australian outback, Davis seems to catch a break when she's sent to live with her wealthy grandmother. Though Davis' rambunctious behavior shocks the aristocratic set, who dismiss her as too plain and unrefined for their tastes, she nonetheless attracts Sam Neill, a well-heeled bachelor considered out of her league. Everyone pushes her to get married while she's still young—and to not be too picky about a husband, either—but Davis stubbornly refuses to abandon her dreams, even for Neill.
With its strong-willed yet vulnerable heroine and decorous period trappings, My Brilliant Career takes the form of an old-fashioned courtship story in the Jane Austen mold, but Armstrong and Davis defiantly coarsen the edges. Though there's some competition between Neill and an oily suitor (Robert Grubb) vying for Davis' hand, this is not a film about a debutante finding someone worthy of her affections, or even the prospect of entering into an unconventional marriage where they're equal partners. It is about a preternaturally modern woman who's on a quest of self-determination—one that's possibly foolhardy, narcissistic, and damaging to her own personal happiness, but ultimately inspiring to witness. The ending is laced with a bit of sadness and regret, but for Davis and Armstrong, two young newcomers at the start of their own brilliant careers, it registers as a powerful statement of purpose.