Sunday, March 8, 2009

DVD review: The Shiralee

The Shiralee - an Australian miniseries, based on the 1955 novel by D’Arcy Niland (which also spawned a feature movie in 1957) - originally aired in the late 1980s and releases on DVD this week. The story is set along the roads of the Australian Outback in the 1940s and 1950s, and explores a father-daughter relationship with humor and affection.

Bryan Brown is “Mac” Macauley, a drifter who has moved to the Outback after growing up an orphan in the city. Mac relishes his itinerant lifestyle, walking along the endless roads, picking up enough work to sustain himself but never staying in one place for long. He takes a job as a butcher’s apprentice and soon falls in love with his employer’s smart and independent daughter Lily (Noni Hazlehurst). Her father doesn’t entirely approve and, when presented with the opportunity, sends Mac packing.

Disconsolate – in a gruff and unsentimental way – Mac briefly takes a job as a boxer with a traveling carnival. Before long, he and fellow carnie Marge run away from the show to get married and work in the city. This marriage is more to distract Mac from his memories of Lily, however, and back in town he soon remembers his preference for the open road. When their marriage falls apart nine years later, Mac leaves Marge, taking their young daughter, Buster (Rebecca Smart) with him. In Australian slang, a “shiralee” is a burden; in a rash moment of spite against his unfaithful wife, Mac has just shouldered his greatest one.

This is where the fun starts – with Mac and Buster on the road together, camping out, scrounging for work, figuring out how to deal with each other. Buster is as stubborn as her dad while, for his part, Mac really has no idea how to deal with a nine-year-old child. She doesn’t want to walk (at first); many employers won’t hire him because he’s got a kid tagging along with him; she sings herself to sleep. Little by little, they grow to trust each other, then like each other and, by the miniseries’s climax – when he is faced with losing his daughter, either via a serious accident or to a vengeful Marge – Mac understands that he loves his stubborn, beautiful daughter.

The acting is a mixed bag, to be sure. Bryan Brown does gruff and obstinate well, and really shines in his scenes with young Rebecca Smart – who is hilarious, charming and the best part of this miniseries. The rest of the cast is adequate at best, and well intentioned at worst. Filmed on location in Australia, the dusty and scruffy Outback towns and roads are nearly as much a character as the humans, showcasing the grit and determination of the Australian frontier-folk.

The Shiralee is approximately 190 minutes long in a 2-episode/2-volume boxed set. The only DVD extra is a Bryan Brown biography.

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