A technical theatre student at Swinburne College, Gillian Armstrong studied filmmaking at the Melbourne and Australian Film and Television School, paying her tuition by working as a waitress. She functioned in several secondary technical capacities in the Australian film industry, then she made her mainstream directorial bow with the 1977 short The Singer and the Dancer, a soft-pedaled feminist tract which won an award at the Sydney Festival. Her first feature was My Brilliant Career (1979), which combined a modern sensibility concerning male/female relationships with the glossy romanticism of a 19th-century novel. Featuring a star-making turn by Judy Davis, My Brilliant Career garnered seven Australian Film Institute awards, firmly securing Armstrong's reputation and future in her native country.
Armstrong's next major feature, the American-financed Mrs. Soffel (1984), starred Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson. The real-life tale of a scandalous love affair between a prison warden's wife and a prisoner, it was moderately well-received. After directing two concert documentaries, Armstrong returned to Australia to make High Tide (1987), a drama about a woman (Judy Davis) struggling to reconcile herself with both her past and the daughter she abandoned at birth. Both that film and Armstrong's next major feature, the critically-acclaimed The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), went largely unknown outside of her native country.