Review of The Shiralee (1988), dir. George Ogilvie
As though hesitantly, the movie begins with a lengthy opening which may make the audience feel bored. None the less, The Shiralee continually unfolds to touch the viewer’s senses. The movie reveals a story of a bloke named Macauley who is described as a ‘swaggie’ since he is walking through the vast outback of Australia, looking for work and facing a hard life. When his chance to get the love of his life named Lilly is thwarted, he gets married to a skittish woman for whom he has absolutely no regard. Then he sets for a long ‘walkabout’ again, leaving his wife and their only child for some months. Having returned from a long journey, he finds his wife in bed with another man. In order to revenge himself, he abandons his wife and takes custody of Buster, their four-year-old child and ventures right into the Australian wilderness. At first, this seemingly inconsiderate step is appalling to the viewer. Macauley does not take Buster with him for the reason of loving her, nor does he wish to rescue her from a moral harm. He is definitely not one of the perfect fathers who cannot imagine their life without their daughter. As it seems, he merely wants to spite his wife by taking her child, which, as he thinks, will hurt her most.
Initially, during their adventures on the road, Macauley is not able to treat Buster properly. Since he knows nothing about the fragile soul of a four-year-old child, he considers Buster a burden. However, the heavy burden of Mac’s inner wound is gradually being healed by the simple presence of his daughter and consequently transforms into a deep love for her. Despite the fact that he is unable to look after Buster in the most appropriate way, and often behaves toward her miserably, she clings to him. Buster represents the ‘shiralee’, which, in the language of aborigines, means ‘swag’. As a metaphor, the word’s meaning is paradoxical. Like a swag, the Mac’s little girl is both his physical burden and psychological survival—the source of living on the road. Through her character the movie portrays a strong man with his weaknesses, a man who firstly was not aware of the vigour of the shiralees that all people must carry like the cross, whether those burdens be the responsibility of fatherhood, mateship, nationhood or even love. Step by step, the tough man is developing and discovering inside of him a great love for his little girl; a love that proves to be genuine and enviable. Only now Macauley and Buster have time to explore depths of their love and the understanding of true friendship.
The barren landscape of the outback that surrounds them contributes to the strength of the family bond and mutual dependence. They both struggle with miseries—from hunger to serious influenza; from a night in jail to the struggle for life. Nevertheless, the worst is still waiting for them. The turning point comes with the attempts of Buster’s mother to get the child back. Fortunately, The Shiralee ends up with a reunion of the two inseparable souls. The final scene brings about a hint for another possible reunion—that of Mac and Lilly, which is affirmed by the posthumous letter of Lilly’s orthodox father who never entirely approved of their love.
Byran Brown stars in the title role of ‘Mac’, whose manners are like those of a bushranger. His performance is brilliant as he seems natural representing every emotion—from hatred to love, from anger to passion—with professional self-confidence and ease. Throughout the movie, Mac is an introverted, reclusive but abrupt, embittered ‘aussie’, whose transformation into a good-natured and kind-hearted man is admirable. Finally, the viewer may think: he is the very Aussie Battler whose innate evil compels him to bravely meet the challenges of life, to struggle with the wilderness of the Australian outback—the harsh nature of the land; who constantly looks for the good and in the end manages to root out the evil. But the most touching element of the movie is the fact that Mac’s initial lack of empathy for his little daughter finally changes into a great affection.
The character of Lilly, starred by Noni Hazlehurst, is Mac’s true love. She is portrayed as a strong woman—a devoted Catholic and overly obedient daughter who has respect for her loving parents. However, despite many obstacles that keep her away from her true love, she finally finds her own way. At the end, she is courageous enough to disagree with her father, saying at his death bed, “We are grown-ups, dad,” implying that after he has died she will obey her own heart, which means that she will become the wife of her beloved Mac and the loving mother of Buster. Lilly, therefore, represents a universal icon of maternal feminity, gently cherishing the whole family. I considered her to be the right compensation for Buster´s real mother.
The most sparkling star of The Shiralee is Buster though. What an excellent performance by Rebecca Smart! Buster reminded me of the Pollyanna in a slightly changed world—that of the Outback. She takes life bravely as it comes. First, she is afraid and wants her mum, but very quickly accustoms herself to her only companion and when somebody asks her about her mother, she promptly answers, “Mom is useless, we do not want her.” She can be tough if necessary, very often sweet but always in love with her daddy.
To sum up, I really loved this delightful and heartwarming tale of father and daughter as well as the Australian beautiful scenery and wilderness. Furthermore, I enjoyed the country music and enchanting sounds of the rural guitar. I have found one shortcoming, which for me—a foreign English speaker—was essential: there are no English subtitles available on the DVD so one may have difficulty in understanding the Australian slang and dialect. Nevertheless, there are many wonderful themes that do not require speech, and maybe subtitles would seem redundant. The Shiralee embraces such great themes as loss, love, desire, betrayal, and friendship, which are eternal, touching the anthropological core of humanity, and are therefore perfectly applicable even today. The movie explores and delves into Australian culture and all its phenomena, combining them and thus creating a jigsaw-puzzle, which results in a marvelous portrayal of the word ‘Australian’ and disclosing what the notion really implies.