Director: George Ogilvie
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Shiralee” is the Australian term for the bundle of worldly possessions carried by itinerant workers famously known from the unofficial anthem of Australia, “Waltzing Matilda,” as swagmen. In this television adaptation of D’Arcy Niland’s classic book, the infrequent voiceover narrator calls a shiralee a burden, and reckons that the swagman at the heart of the story, Macauley (Bryan Brown), has two of them—his bundle and his daughter Buster (Rebecca Smart). How a tough guy like Macauley ended up dragging his 9-year-old daughter through the Australian bush, sleeping around a campfire and walking miles in the harsh sun, is only part of the story. This wonderful family film creates a time and place you can practically taste and shows how the bond between a parent and child can dissolve even the most stoically borne disappointments and open up possibilities abandoned long ago.
The film flashes back to 1939, when Macauley, the product of an Adelaide orphanage, has left city life behind him and struck off for the hinterlands. He enters a general store and asks for clothing suitable for hard travel. The shopkeeper asks if he’s going on horseback or by foot, and when told foot, slaps down a sturdy pair of walking shoes. “Socks or no?” “Socks,” answers Macauley. “City boy,” the shopkeeper surmises. Macauley eventually pitches up in Eucla, Western Australia, just across the South Australia border, where he lands a job as an apprentice butcher to Thaddeus (Simon Chilvers) and is immediately smitten with Thad’s daughter Lily (Noni Hazlehurst). She returns his affections, much to the annoyance of her current beau Tony (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). He arranges for Lily to think Macauley spent the night with another woman, and when Macauley finds out, he confronts Tony, only to be beaten unconscious, doused with liquor, and dumped in Thad’s ransacked butcher shop. Drawing his own conclusions from the evidence, Thad puts the unconscious Macauley on a train out of Eucla.
Skipping past World War II, the film takes us to 1946. Macauley is working for a traveling carnival as the resident boxer who takes on locals who hope to beat him and win a cash prize. He’s content enough with his carney family until he runs into a man he used to know in Eucla and is introduced to the man’s wife—Lily. Still in love with her, he disobeys orders to let his next local contender win the bout and takes all his hurt and anger out on the hapless bloke. That evening, he informs the carneys that he and Marge (Lorna Lesley), a young barker on the carnival midway, are getting married. The carnival owners warn him about making such a rash match, but he says that the only woman he wanted to marry is already married and reckons that he and Marge can make a go of it.
The film moves forward to 1953, and a small apartment in Adelaide, where Buster watches her mother Marge apply lipstick in preparation for a date. To keep Buster quiet, Marge doses her milk with some liquor. Unfortunately for Marge, Macauley picks that night to come home from his work at rural farms and sheep stations and finds her in flagrante delicto with a town councilman. After breaking the man’s jaw and ribs and smelling liquor on Buster’s breath, he throws the money he made at Marge and walks out with Buster tucked under his arm. So begins his adventure as a single dad.
Macauley is a sun-scorched and solitary man who likes to stay on the move and avoid personal ties. Buster is a typical child who squeals with delight at finding a caterpillar, complains of hunger, runs almost to tripping to keep pace with her hard-stepping father, and worms her way into his heart and ours almost effortlessly. Rebecca Smart is a very natural, appealing young actress whose initial cries for her mother (comforted by an elderly woman on the train she and Macaulay are taking back to the bush) give way to a dogged devotion to her father. He allows her to keep a giraffe plush toy a friend has given her as long as she carries it herself, and it is through “Gooby” that Buster expresses her feelings to her skittish dad and anyone else who is paying attention.
The relationship between father and daughter is somewhat lopsided. Buster falls into the rhythms of Macauley’s life and forms her attachment easily. But Mac comes to love Buster through admiration at her determination and abilities, not through some magical, idealized bond. When she takes a hatchet to chop a piece of wood for their campfire, rather than pull the tool away from her in fear, he places the branch so she will be able to strike it more effectively. A look of pride rises to his face at what a tough and resourceful person she is. It’s so refreshing to see a child treated as an actual person instead of an appendage or a porcelain doll in need of constant protection.
Macauley and a now-widowed Lily meet again, still in love but separated by fear, and Mac reluctantly goes to work for her shearing sheep. Ogilvie’s camera lingers over the shearer quarters and takes its time showing the shearing process, breathing life into the work that has filled Mac’s life. When Lily intervenes when Buster comes down with a bad case of the flu, Mac yells that he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to raise his kid and sweats the flu out of her during an anxious night. Sadly, he storms off Lily’s farm without realizing that he does, indeed, need help being a parent. When Marge comes back on the scene and threatens his custody of Buster, his love has grown to the point where he is willing to meet Buster and Lily halfway and give up his solitary—and selfish—existence.
The small-town South Australia locations where Ogilvie shoots probably still have buildings that date back to at least 1939; adding some period clothing, sundries, and autos locates the characters over time but doesn’t take away appreciably from the timeless quality of this rural existence. A square dance in the 1939 section is shown at length as a joyous event that celebrates the sense of community among the bush towns; even something as ordinary as Thad’s death makes all the local newspapers, and the bush “telegraph” spreads the word of a crisis Buster and Mac face. Mac may be a loner, but he’s far from alone. But Aboriginals are absent save for one who travels with the carnival, and the look he gets from the locals suggests he is a highly unusual and not altogether welcome sight.
Bryan Brown is a yeoman actor with a somewhat limited range, but he is perfectly cast as Macauley. Handsome and rugged, he can project pleasure with a smile or clamp down his emotions with the utmost restraint. His growing relationship with Buster is believable and comes to a climax of emotional release that is very moving and realistic. The supporting cast is terrific, including Lorna Lesley, who plays a spurned and bitter wife with a pathetic intensity, and Simon Chilvers, who is decent, understated, and commanding of respect. Even the somewhat melodramatic ending feels grounded in reality and elicits emotions from us that the rest of the film has earned. The Shiralee is must viewing for anyone who values family films with life and depth.