Cinema: Spinster

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Directed by Gill Armstrong Screenplay by Eleanor Witcombe

Rather loftily for a girl living on a wind-worn ranch in the Australian outback, Sybylla proclaims that she belongs to the world of art and literature. Her impoverished parents are exasperated, but not much worried. They assume that the world of family and property will change her mind. The sense-bringing task is undertaken by her wealthy maternal grandmother, who invites her to live at her gracious plantation. There rebellious Sybylla is to learn to dress in a ladylike manner, deal with servants and comport herself properly with proper people.

It is also assumed—and no one is hesitant about putting the assumption into direct speech—that she will make it her business to attract a man of suitable wealth and submit to marriage. "Marriage gives us respectability, my dear," explains her grandmother. Sybylla is considered to be plain, and she is given to understand that she had better not be choosy (Actress Judy Davis, the sly and lively redhead who is Sybylla, is, of course, very attractive).

For a time it seems that Sybylla will indeed submit, though not before a wild fox chase. She makes life miserable for an unsuitable suitor (so identified because his hair is parted in the middle), and is even harder on the suitable chap, Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), who is solemn, good-looking and earnest. But when she prankishly overturns a boat in which they are punting, soaking them both in their decorous, neck-to-ankle costumes, it can be assumed that she likes him. When he proposes, it is hard for her not to accept.

Instead she asks for two years in which to work out her ideas. He agrees, decent fellow, and at the end of the two years (this is the end of the 19th century, when there still were good men and true) he proposes again. She refuses, not happily and not certain of what she is doing. She says that she intends to be a writer and does indeed turn out a manuscript. The last scene shows her, having posted it to a publisher, leaning on the gate of her parents' ranch, smiling. This is a modest, clear sighted film, and it profits considerably from a lack of the bravura landscape photography that most directors would have used to puff up a movie set in Australia.

A note at the end seems just right: it says that My Brilliant Career was published in Edinburgh in 1901. —John Skow