Sunday Too Far Away Review

Australia, 1955. Foley (Jack Thompson), a former gun (champion) sheep-shearer, agrees to join a shearing team put together by Tim King (Max Cullen), an old friend. The team includes Old Garth (Reg Lye), a former gun shearer turned alcoholic and Black Arthur (Peter Cummins), a newcomer from New South Wales who proves to be more than a match for Foley. As the season wears on, Foley tries to prove he’s still the champion…

The title of the film comes from a poem called The Shearer’s Wife’s Lament, referring to how little she sees her husband: “Friday night too tired,/Saturday night too drunk,/Sunday, too far away.” Ken Hannam had been working for British television for six years (making episodes of Z Cars and Dr Finlay’s Casebook, amongst others) when he was sent John Dingwall’s treatment, then called simply Shearers. Dingwall’s original treatment would have made a very long film: half of it dealt with the characters of the shearers, with a second half covering the 1956 shearers’ strike. Dingwall reduced his screenplay in length, with only a few scenes at the end touching on the strike. (A final caption tells us how the strike was resolved.) Hannam’s cut ran about half an hour longer than the final version, which was edited to its present running time by producer Gil Brealey, who removed at least one subplot. This version played at Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight and won the 1975 Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film.(beating Picnic at Hanging Rock amongst others). Hannam and Jack Thompson have spoken of how superior the longer version was. As Hannam’s cut has never been shown publicly, it’s impossible to tell if they are right or whether Brealey, less close to the material, was. The film certainly has an episodic, character-driven narrative, and there are definitely holes in the plot and characters whose time on screen seems to have been reduced. But where it does score is in its simple, solid depiction of men at work, rich in character detail and typically Australian salty humour. It’s the definitive picture of a small, macho world with that archetypal Australian theme, mateship, well to the fore. The only women are the local barmaid and the cocky’s (farm-owner) daughter. Jack Thompson played many leading roles in the Australian film revival of the 70s, and this is one of his key films. He even sings the song that plays over both credits sequences. Reg Lye (an Australian espatriate that Hannam brought with him from London) gives a moving performance as Old Garth, and the rest of the cast are perfectly chosen. Ken Shorter, who played the title character in Stone, turns up in a small but pivotal role. (Trivia time: the shearing scenes were filmed at a shed at Carriewerloo Station – unusual in having twenty stalls instead of the usual six to eight – which had previously featured in Fred Zinnemann's The Sundowners.)

Looking back, you’d have to put Hannam in the second rank of 70s Australian directors – no auteur, but certainly a very competent craftsman who had one classic in him. His other 70s films – Break of Day, the atmospheric thriller Summerfield and Dawn! a biopic of Olympic swimmer Dawn Fraser – are certainly of interest, but it’s Sunday Too Far Away on which his reputation will stand. His last cinema film was the 1984 version of the much-filmed novel Robbery Under Arms (co-directed with Donald Crombie, another craftsman with one classic, Caddie, in him), starring Sam Neill, and an expensive flop. Since then he’s worked in TV, including – full circle – some work for the BBC.

Given the complex production history of Sunday Too Far Away, not to mention its classic status, you’d think that there would be material for a fine DVD package. But this budget release in Reel Corporation’s Classic Australian Cinema series is as bare-bones as they come. The DVD is full-screen. Watching the film, it would seem that it was shot open-matte and intended for a ratio of (I estimate) 1.75:1. I can’t help wondering what a 16:9 anamorphic transfer would do. Certainly a digital restoration would be nice: although the film is intact, there are quite a few scratches and dust spots, plus an occasional odd texturing of the image. The picture has a faded, yellowish look, though not having seen the film in the cinema, only on television, I can’t tell if that’s a characteristic of Geoff Burton’s photography or a problem with the DVD. I’m sure this film has looked better before and hopefully it will again.

The sound is the original mono. There are problems with the mixing, especially in the shearing sequences, with sound effects tending to drown out dialogue. Because of this, and some strong Aussie accents, it’s regrettable that there are no subtitles. There are fourteen chapter stops, which is adequate for a film of this length. The running time includes over a minute of play-out music.

There is a trailer on this disc, but it’s not for Sunday Too Far Away. Instead it’s for Playing Beatie Bow, a 1985 time-travel fantasy directed by Donald Crombie. Presumably this is a forthcoming release in Reel’s Classic series, though it’s a very odd choice if it is.

Australian cinema has a rich heritage, which is only just beginning to emerge on DVD. Releases such as Roadshow’s fine edition of Newsfront show what can be done with the classics of the past. As for this edition of Sunday Too Far Away, all that can be said is that the film survives. Let’s hope that someone, not necessarily in Australia, gives the film the special edition it deserves.

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