SHIRALEE, THE(director/writer: Leslie Norman; screenwriter: Neil Paterson; cinematographer: Paul Beeson; cast: Peter Finch (Jim Macauley), Dana Wilson (Buster Macauley), Rosemary Harris (Lily Parker), Tessie O’Shea (Bella), Elizabeth Sellars (Marge Macauley), Sidney James (Luke), Reg Lye (Desmond), George Rose (Donny); Runtime: 99; Metro / MgM / Michael Balcon-Ealing Production; 1957-Australia)
“Pleasant enough viewing.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Kids are notorious scene stealers and as sharp a performance as was put on by Peter Finch, nevertheless, the kid still stole the show. He’s the native Australian, returning home after successfully building a budding career in England and working with Laurence Olivier; and, as rumored, having an affair with Mrs. Olivier. He should be glad to be home again!
Shiralee could be at times a very penetrating and hard look at a proud and independent man who has fallen more in love with the Aussie countryside and outback, than he has with settling down and being a responsible family man. Peter Finch is well up to the task of being this rugged individualist, Jim Macauley. He is known as a scagman, someone who seeks only temporary work and whose aim is to be completely independent.
At times the film drifts off into soapy sentimental territory, becoming contrived and not sure if it wants to be that honest and truthful about the bitter-sweet story it is telling.
The story is a rather plain one. Mac comes home to find his wife Marge (Sellars) in bed with the man she is living with, Donny (Rose), and in the same beer bottle cluttered room is his young daughter asleep. Mac acts indignant and hears a lecture from his wife that he ignored her. She says: “What did you expect me to do, sit here and wait for you forever?” He then beats up Donny, puts the little girl over his shoulder and is back on the road.
The girl’s name is Buster (Dana) and she is cute, tempestuous, and hardy, the best reason for watching this film. She becomes the Shiralee, which is the aborigine word meaning a burden. It is heartbreaking to see her on the road as no matter what the hardship she shows an unspoken love for her father who is aloof in his real love for her, but is won completely over to her by the time the film ends.
Mac retraces his previous routes and as expected, we see that this leads to trouble. The two roam the country’s back roads with the father getting into a big fight, meeting again his colorful acquaintances, meeting new colorful characters, and painstakingly breaking the little girl into his routine. She takes solace in a doll one of Mac’s friends gives her, which is used to compensate for her loneliness.
It is a movie made by Ealing, a British studio, that actually used mostly a British cast, making the film seem more British than Aussie. It is a film that Disney could have easily made; and, it should be noted that this film was made into a successful television sitcom.
The subplot did not play really well; it had Mac kicked off a farm he previously worked at 7 years ago even though Buster has a high fever, as the owner of the farm despises Mac for making his daughter Lily (Harris) pregnant and then leaving her. Mac’s excuse, is that he didn’t know she was pregnant and lost the baby.
There is also some comedy to soften the melodramatics: a couple (Bella & Luke) that are so good that they seem like they were created only for sitcoms take Mac and Buster under their wing. Buster refuses the comfort of a real bed this warm couple offers, and insists she go along with her dad as he searches for work.
The crisis point comes when Buster’s mom gets a court date to prove that she would be a better parent than the father to the child. But this all seems unimportant when Buster, chasing after her father who fails to return home because he is with a woman, gets hit by a car and it is touch-and-go whether she will live or die. Melodramatics take over, and the film is now reduced to a sentimental weepy. It is still packed with enough sustaining power to make it pleasant enough viewing, but no more than that.
REVIEWED ON 5/12/99 GRADE: C +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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