266. The Shiralee (UK/Australia 1957)
Director: Leslie Norman
Starring: Peter Finch, Dana Wilson, Elizabeth Sellars
Cinematography: Pail Beeson
Original Music: John Addison
Script: Leslie Norman/ Neil Paterson
Novel: D'Arcy Niland
Bit Parts: Tessie O'Shea, Sid James, Ed Deveraux
FACT: There are a number of possible derivations of the word 'Shiralee. One idea' is that it is an Irish slang word adopted by Australians - it denotes a 'burden' or something unwanted.
LIE: The outsized Tessie O'Shea (a regular on the truly terrible The Good Old Days) was chosen for the role of Bella because her shortened first name is also an 'Aussie' slang word. Her real name is Testicle O'Shea.
In one line: Itinerant worker learns how to be a good parent
Jim Macauley (Finch) returns home to find his wife being in the arms of another man. Macauley beats up his wife's lover and takes his own daughter (the bizarrely named 'Buster') with him on his travels to spite his wife. Macauley travels the outback looking for work. Although he has no real parenting skills and is an old-fashioned, no-nonsense kind of man, Macauley learns to be a loving, caring parent when illness and a near-fatal accident almost kills his daughter..
A splendid if somewhat sentimental version of Darcy Niland's excellent novel. Finch is great as Macauley - an old-school stereotyped Australian man with little regard for women or kids. The irony of The Shiralee is that he ends up acting as mother and father to the seven year old Buster.
Niland's novel is filled with all sorts of salty language that director Norman (Barry's dad) had to expunge for public sensibilities, and 'bastard' and 'fucker' are replaced by lame efforts like 'dog' and 'dingo', but you still get a sense of the adult nature of the book by the fairly direct references to sex in some of the early scenes and the revelation that Macauley has been shagging his way round the outback and is refused help by a garage owner because he impregnated the man's daughter at some stage in the past.
After a claustrophobic series of opening scenes, The Shiralee opens up as Jim and Buster take to the road. There are some nice shots of the Outback and there are shades of Walkabout as man and child traverse a giant country.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Macauley and Finch. Eight year old Dana Wilson gives an excellent, naturalistic performance and there's obviously a genuine bond between the little girl and her surrogate actor father.
Most of the women depicted in the film are fairly awful and in some ways, the film can be construed as fairly misogynistic. One of the more tedious aspects of Australian culture is its constant self-inspection of its masculine and 'macho' traits. We're often led to believe that all Australian males are tough, independently minded, iconoclastic wanderers, and The Shiralee does little to discourage this stereotype. Macauley is anti-women, rejects any form of intellectualism or culture, and at times we're led to admire his blinkered, boorish utilitarianism.
But Buster's persistence and love for her father start to strip away most of the tenets of Macauley's selfish beliefs and often oafish attitudes, although it's a long and dawn-out process. The gender and age divide of the two main protagonists provides fertile ground for a number of funny, touching and believable scenes and there might be dust in your eyes by the end of one of the few Australian-set films that doesn't make you want to kick your TV to bits.
When I was growing up, it used to be a running joke that there were only about six actors in the Australian 'pool' of 'talent'. Jack Thompson (a decent enough actor it has to be said - apart from his 'British Colonel' in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) generally played every role going - including women and animals - and when he wasn't available Ed Deveraux (most famously 'the dad' in 'Skippy') was your man. Ed has a small role in The Shiralee, as does Sid James's Australian mate, Bill Kerr. When The Shiralee was re-made as a mini-series in 1987, the producers thought long and hard about possible choices to play Macauley, the part made famous by the charismatic and talented Peter Finch. And of all the actors available they chose Bryan Brown. Yes, Bryan fucking Brown - not just the new Mr Ubiquitous of Australian film and television, but possessor of the worst, stereotypical 'Aussie' arsehole screen personas in the history of moving pictures.
The 1957 version of The Shiralee hasn't surfaced in would in years, but if the other one ever appears on one of the ever-proliferating satellite channels, avoid it like you would an Australian in an English pub. The former is shite: the latter is full of shite. Every single of them
But the Peter Finch version?
A little clip from the film courtesy of Australian Screen: