Is it possible for a story to mosey even as it races through fifteen years of a man's life in just thirty minutes? "The Shiralee," the 1987 two-part miniseries adapted from D'Arcy Niland's novel, moves along at the most casual of paces, even as it races us through its backstory to get to the story proper. It's a magical little tale, quiet and introspective and deeply personal, and it's in no hurry to get us anywhere.
Bryan Brown plays Macauley, a city fella looking to find a change in the Outback. Early scenes show him wandering into a small town and falling for Lily (Noni Hazlehurst); he's eventually booted out of town, never forgetting his first love. Mac winds up a circus boxer, battling local challengers for cheap money - and refusing to lose, even when he's asked. It's there he meets Marge (Lorna Lesley), too young, too wild. They marry, despite his friends' warnings against it. No matter. He admits he doesn't love her - he only loves Lily, still, after all these years - but thinks there's enough there to give it a go.
Jump ahead some more, and finally to the main story. Mac didn't take to settling down, keeping instead to a life on the road, drifting from odd job to odd job, sending money home to Marge and their daughter, Buster (Rebecca Smart), whenever he could. He returns to find Marge in bed with another man; furious, he leaves, taking Buster along.
And so we have our tale: a swagman - Aussie slang for transient farmhand - stuck wandering the roads with a nine-year-old girl. ("Shiralee" is slang for the swag these men carry, or, more to the point, a "burden.") It's no place for a girl, but then again, Mac insists, it's still better than sending her back to Marge.
"The Shiralee" centers on the first few months of Mac and Buster's time together, and, naturally, how it improves them both. For all his drifting, Mac travels in familiar circles - back to the circus, back to the same few ranches he's accustomed to working, back to the same watering holes and resting spots - and everywhere he goes, his old friends are delighted by Buster's charms. But a few chance encounters also deliver him back, again and again, to Lily, who's now running the family farm, who still pines for Mac the same way Mac does for her.
Director George Ogilvie ("Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome") and screenwriter Tony Morphett ("The Last Wave") do a fabulous job of bringing Niland's drama to life, focusing on the gentleness of it all. For all his character's roughness, Brown makes sure we know he's a good man underneath. Stubborn, crass, and none too complicated, but definitely a good man. Smart and Hazlehurst deliver charming performances as the women Mac most certainly deserves, even if he doesn't know it.
The story takes an awkward dip into high melodrama in its final half hour or so, with Marge (Lesley plays the part as written: manic and over-the-top, a real soap opera villain) threatening to steal Buster back. It's all a bit too obvious, with plot points too heavy-handed and mawkish to really fit with the calm, tender pacing of everything that's come before. And yet by this point, the story can afford a little melodrama, as its characters have earned a special admiration. We love these people and their small scale tribulations, so once the script demands larger action, we'll let them have it. Even with the big finish that's a little too big, "The Shiralee" warms our hearts and captivates with every turn in the road.
"The Shiralee" was originally produced as a two-part miniseries for Australian television, then massively truncated for international release (sources vary, but most agree on 100 minutes), including U.S. public television. (A theatrical version was sent out under the title "Macauley's Daughter.") Acorn Media now offers "The Shiralee" in its complete, original 190 minute version, the first time it's been released as such in the States.
The film is spread over two discs, one "episode" per disc. Each disc is housed in a keepcase, both fitting into a glossy cardboard slipcover.
Video & Audio
I can't attest to how "The Shiralee" originally looked, but it certainly hasn't aged well, and there's no restoration here. The whole thing is overly soft with washed out colors, like a just-slightly-out-of-focus image left out in the South Aussie sun a pinch too long. Presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast format.
A simple stereo soundtrack does a fine, if basic, job with the dialogue and Chris Neal's lovely musical score. No subtitles are offered.
The lone extra is a brief biography and filmography of Bryan Brown. A couple previews for other Acorn releases play as the first disc loads.
While the disc presentation is certainly lacking, the film itself is strong enough to be most certainly Recommended. Fans of thoughtful, intimate drama will find much to relish here, with terrific performances and captivating characters.