Gillian Armstrong was born in Melbourne, Victoria on December 18, 1950. She was the middle child of a local real estate agent father and a primary school teacher mother. Her father was a frustrated photographer who, whilst unable to follow his dreams professionally, always practiced as an amateur (Armstrong reminiscences of how she grew up in a dark room, learning all about photography.)

Upon completing high school, Armstrong became a technical theatre while paying her tuition by working as a waitress (originally, she attended school to become a theatrical set designer but the school that she attended also offered a film course.) Becoming enamoured by the great names of cinema, she decided to enter the film industry. During this time, she was exposed to a range of artistic films that differentiated from the commercial cinema and Television she was used to.
She began making short films of 2–10 minutes, and started work as an assistant editor in a commercial film house, which lasted a year. She then won a scholarship to join the first 12 students at Australia’s first and only film school, the Australian Film and Television School.
Following a string of small jobs within the Australian film industry, she achieved her first real directorial recognition through her short film The Singer and the Dancer which won an award at the Sydney Film Festival.

Following this success, Armstrong was commissioned by the South Australian Film Corporation to make a documentary exploring the lives of young teenage girls living in Adelaide, South Australia. This became Smokes and Lollies (1976), her first paid job as director.

Armstrong’s first feature length film “My Brilliant Career (1979)”, an adaptation of Miles Franklin’s novel of the same name, was the first Australian feature length film to be directed by a woman for 46 years. Armstrong received six awards at the 1979 Australian Film Awards (previously the Australian Film Institute Awards, or AFI’s) including Best Director. The film also brought considerable attention to its two main stars, Judy Davis and Sam Neill who were relatively unknown at the time.

Following the success of My Brilliant Career, which was nominated for an Academy Award in Best Costume Design, Armstrong directed the Australian rock-musical “Starstruck (1982)” which proved her ability to tackle more contemporary and experimental subject matter and styles.

Since then, Armstrong has specialised in period drama. She was the first foreign woman to be approached by the American film company MGM to finance her direction of a big-budget feature, which became “Mrs. Soffel (1984)” starring Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton This film tells the scandalous true-story of an affair between a prisoner and a prison warden’s wife, and was relatively well received by audiences and critics.

On returning to Australia, Armstrong continued to make both documentaries and feature films. She earned great recognition for High Tide (1987) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) in which she was nominated for Best Director at the 1987 and 1992 Australian Film Institute Awards (AFI’s).

In 1994, Armstrong achieved her greatest Hollywood success with the adaptation of Little Women, starring Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst. This adaptation of Louisa Mary Alcott’s novel of the same name was one of the most popular films of the year, and emphasises Armstrong’s focus on portraying the intimate lives of strong female characters and their relationships with one another.

She followed this success three years later with the film Oscar and Lucinda (1997) starring Ralph Fiennes and a relatively unknown Cate Blanchett.

In the 2000s, Armstrong went on to direct the feature films Charlotte Gray (2001), starring Cate Blanchett, and Death Defying Acts (2008). Despite the success of these more commercial films, it was Armstrong’s lesser-known documentary Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2006) which earned her the most critical recognition during this time, and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Armstrong has a distinctive style in her work that resists easy categorization. Most of her films cannot simply be stated as being either “women’s films” or Australian ones which are the two most generalised categories for women in her line of work. Armstrong’s films are described as mixing and intermingling genres in ways that recreate them as something vastly different than what they have been considered. Nevertheless, the films that Armstrong creates can also be considered conventional films in their appeal to the audience. Her films possess sensitive and delicate cinematography, fluid editing, an evocative feel for setting and costume, and a commitment to solid character development and acting. Overall, Armstrong’s work is reminiscent of the best of classical cinema.