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The Shiralee
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suppliedTitle,Indiscretion of an American Wife

The Shiralee

After not filming in the country for seven years, Ealing Studios returned to Australia to make The Shiralee (1957), an episodic drama, co-produced with the British branch of MGM. Unlike Australian-set Hollywood films of the period, which used the country more for novel or exotic locale, the Ealing films had a genuine interest in exploring, rather than exploiting, the culture. The Ealing-produced Eureka Stockade (1949) and Bitter Springs (1950) introduced the country's unique way of life to audiences outside its own borders and made a star of Australian actor Chips Rafferty. For their latest production, the studio once again cast a homeboy, although one who had made it big internationally, living and working far from the country. Peter Finch, already a stage star in Sydney with several films under his belt, was initially considered for Rafferty's breakthrough role in Ealing's The Overlanders (1946), but British director Harry Watt heard Finch "was a drunk, and I wasn't interested in putting up with that sort of thing." By the time of Eureka Stockade, Watt was convinced Finch had cleaned up his act enough to offer him a small role as a government official, even though producer Leslie Norman tried to convince Watt to give Finch the lead. Instead, Watt agreed to give Finch a job as one of his assistants. And during a long shooting delay due to rain, Finch signed on - for a paltry 12 pounds per week - as assistant to cinematographer George Heath, who was filming a documentary on the Wangarri tribe. Norman was determined, however, to use Finch in an important role and the actor was the first one he thought of for this movie.

The Shiralee was a true homecoming for Finch. Between 1949 and 1957, his career had taken off in England and Hollywood. He played the brooding romantic lead in Paramount's Elephant Walk (1954) opposite Elizabeth Taylor (a role she took over from the ailing Vivien Leigh, with whom Finch carried on a brief affair). One of his most popular hits in Britain was A Town Like Alice (1956), filmed in Buckinghamshire, England, despite its Australian setting. So when he returned home to begin this production, he was ready to immerse himself in the Down Under life and party with friends from his wild young Sydney days. Determined to appear authentic and worthy of the lead role, a rough-and-tumble itinerant worker, Finch booked passage on a cargo ship, serving as an ordinary crewmember during the long journey around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. If his adventure was dampened a bit by a less than enthusiastic reception by his old friends (who were wary and resentful of his having left Australia and achieved fame abroad), he soon got over it, working on his cousin Florrie's ranch for a month to get the look and feel of his character, Jim Macauley. In fact, at Florrie's, Finch did all the work Macauley did - riding horses, herding cattle, feeding stock, chopping wood, mending fences. He also got a "country" haircut, buzzed high over the ears and neck, so that when he arrived on location in New South Wales, he was looking the part and well fit for it.

"Shiralee" is the Australian aboriginal word for "burden," and the burden Jim Macauley must carry is his five-year-old daughter Buster. Returning home after a few years drifting the country for work, he finds his wife living with another man, and he takes their daughter away. The child clings to him, despite his inability to properly care for her, but after some nasty court action by his wife, a beating by a group of thugs, and Buster's near death, Macauley learns to accept and love his "burden." He returns to the arms of a sympathetic woman he mistreated and left behind years earlier, and the three form a family.

The role of "good woman" Lily Parker was played by Rosemary Harris, who has since achieved wide acclaim in the U.S. and her native Britain for her work on stage, television, and film, most recently as Aunt May in Spider-Man (2002). It was only Harris's second feature-film role and although she knew very well how to make an entrance onto a stage, she had no idea how to walk into a camera shot. So she asked Finch if she could watch him work. She noticed that he began every shot with his back to the camera and more or less backed into the shot. From her perspective it was an effective device that made it seem as if his character had come from somewhere, that he had a life going on before the camera picked him up. The two became good friends during the shoot. "Peter didn't act his parts, he understood them," Harris later said. "It came from somewhere inside him.╔I╒m glad he stayed in films; his art was too pure for the stage."

Director: Leslie Norman
Producer: Jack Rix
Screenplay: Neil Paterson, Leslie Norman, from the novel by D'Arcy Niland
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Editing: Gordon Stone
Art Direction: Jim Morahan
Original Music: John Addison
Cast: Peter Finch (Jim Macauley), Elizabeth Sellars (Marge Macauley), Dana Wilson (Buster Macaulay), Rosemary Harris (Lily Parker), Niall MacGinnis (Beauty Kelly)
BW-99m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon

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