Sunday Too Far Away Review
In memory of Gil Brealey (9 April 1932 – 1 April 2018)
Friday night, too tired / Saturday night, too drunk / Sunday too far away - The Shearer's Wife's Lament
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 the poem quoted above, author unknown, referring to how little the shearer's wife sees her husband. He's “too far away” because he's gone to another shed for the coming working week.
Sunday Too Far Away is a key film in the revival (New Wave, if you prefer) of the Australian Film Industry in the 1970s. The early commercial successes of the decade, such as the “ocker comedies” Stork, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple had not received much critical favour – though as I suggest in the reviews linked to, they stand up quite well today, and there's far worse lowbrow smut now called Ozploitation to be found. Sunday Too Far Away was both a critical success and did good business. It was the first production of the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) and the first all-Australian film since Jedda, twenty years earlier, to be invited to Cannes, where it played in the Director's Fortnight. (Wake in Fright, which played in competition under its then-international title Outback in 1971, was a US/Australian coproduction.) Along with Picnic at Hanging Rock, released later the same year, 1975, it marks the point where critics overseas took notice of what was happening in Australian cinema. This is even more remarkable given that it was a troubled production, and, more specifically, a troubled post-production.
Like many Australians of his generation in the film and television industries, on both sides of the camera, Ken Hannam, born in Melbourne in 1929, had been working in the UK for the greater opportunities there. He had begun his career on Australian television in 1961 but by 1969 was in the UK, and his name can be found on episodes of Dr Finlay's Casebook, Z Cars and Moonbase 3, among others. He received a film treatment written by John Dingwall, then called Shearers. The 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 nine-month 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.) The film was shot from March to April 1974, and immediately ran into problems by suffering heavy rains and floods. The film was shot on location at Quorn and Port Augusta, South Australia, with locals (including the Vicar of Quorn) appearing as extras, as long as they were willing to have their hair cut in period-appropriate short-back-and-sides style. The bar was a set built in a basement in Port Augusta Town Hall. 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 an overseas production shot on location, The Sundowners from 1960.
The version Hannam delivered ran about two hours (though according to some accounts, nearer two and a half). This version played at Cannes and became the first Australian film to open the Sydney Film Festival on 1 July 1975. Live sheep-shearing demonstrations took place outside the cinema, with jack Thompson – who, unlike the rest of the cast, had had previous experience as a shearer – joining in.
However, Gil Brealey, one of the film's two producers and the founding chairman and director of the SAFC then intervened. Brealey had begun as a television director, making among others The Stranger, a children's science fiction serial which became one of the first Australian television series to be sold abroad: the BBC showed it in 1965. He produced 3 to Go, a 1969 portmanteau film intended to showcase younger filmmakers: one of the three segments (Michael) was written and directed by Peter Weir. His one feature-film directing credit came later – 1984's Annie's Coming Out (A Test of Love in the USA), which won that year's Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards for Best Film and Best Actress (Angela Punch McGregor).
Brealey felt that Sunday Too Far Away was too long and a likely commercial disaster for the fledgling SAFC. With Hannam away directing two episodes of the UK/Australian TV series Luke's Kingdom (something Hannam later regarded as a strategic error on his part), the film was re-edited and shortened to the 94 minute version now available. This version was shown at the Adelaide Festival Theatre on 15 June. This was billed as a “world premiere” (of this version, maybe) and was in the presence of the Governor and Premier of South Australia and the then Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Going by the programme (included in PDF form on this disc) the event began with playing “God Save the Queen” and “Advance Australia Fair”, the showing of a short film Kangaroo Island, Brealey introducing speeches by Whitlam and the Premier, before Brealey introduced the film, which began at the very specific time of 8.36pm, ending 94 minutes later and followed by an address by Jack Thompson and then supper. Ken Hannam, no doubt understandably, did not attend. The film went on general release the next day.
Hannam and Jack Thompson have both spoken how superior the longer version of Sunday... was, and as it has not been available since the film was shortened, it's unknown if they are right or whether Brealey, less close to the material, was – and as Hannam and Brealey are both no longer with us, it's probably no longer possible to say. 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 Ivy (Phyllis Ophel) and the cocky’s (farm-owner) daughter Sheila (Lisa Peers). The scene where she gets to see the shearers at work – a male-only area up to that point – marks a shift in the film, as we see the men through a rather-significantly-named woman's eye: there's certainly a lot of celebration of the men's physiques throughout the film, though as the title suggests, the women in their lives are incidental – they work for the weekend and then go back to another shed. In the original version of the film and Dingwall's screenplay, a romance would have developed between Foley and Sheila, but this is not in the current version. The whole cast is perfectly chosen. Reg Lye, a veteran Australian actor, who like Hannam had been working in the UK (he turns up a lot in British films and television from the 1960s), is moving as Old Garth, divorced and now alcoholic. Jack Thompson (born 1940) was of a younger generation of actors, and had begun his career on Australian television in the 1960s, making his film debut in 1970 in Wake in Fright. Foley was a defining role for him, embodying a particular brand of Australian masculinity. He also sings the song which is played over both credits sequences.
Thompson won the AFI Award for Best Actor, shared with himself for Petersen and with Martin Vaughan for the TV movie Billy and Percy. Sunday Too Far Away also won Best Film and also received an Honourable Mention for Reg Lye's supporting role. The film had its UK cinema release on 1 July 1976, opening in London at the Warner West End (now Vue) in Leicester Square. Its British television premiere was on 28 February 1982, as part of the first of several Australian film seasons put on by BBC2, which did a lot to introduce many Britons, myself included, to Australian cinema. Sunday Too Far Away has not had a UK commercial release since its cinema run.
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, Summerfield and Dawn! – 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 Rolf Boldrewood's much-filmed novel Robbery Under Arms, co-directed with Donald Crombie and starring Sam Neill, made both as a 140-minute feature film and a three-part, four-ahd-a-half-hour television miniseries, and an expensive flop. He alternated work between the UK and Australia through much of the Seventies and after Robbery Under Arms worked in British television until his death in 2004. John Dingwall continued as a writer and later became a director as well, with Phobia (1990) and The Custodian (1993) before he too died in 2004.
Sunday Too Far Away was recognised as something very special from the outset. David Robinson, seeing it again after Cannes, reviewing it in the (London) Times of 11 June 1976 (a little before its release), said that “it still looks like [Australia's] first real masterwork”, comparing it to the westerns of Hawks and Ford. He wasn't alone, and the film remains a key work of the Australian New Wave and Australian cinema as a whole. In 2000, it became one of the “Atlab 50”, or more formally the Kodak/Atlab Collection, fifty Australian films selected for restoration with new prints struck.
Near the beginning of this century, Sunday Too Far Away was one of several SAFC titles which received DVD releases from Reel Entertainment, and that was the disc I reviewed back in 2002, a 4:3 transfer with poor picture and sound, and with the only extra a trailer for another SAFC film. To say that this disc from Umbrella, issued as part of their deal with the SAFC is considerably better isn't saying a lot, but unlike many of Umbrella's SAFC titles it does have extras. Quite why a film with such classic status as this has no Blu-ray release is another question, though if there isn't a HD master in existence someone will have to create one, and pay for doing so. Umbrella's disc is PAL format, dual-layered and encoded for all regions. It carries the advisory Australian M rating the film has always had. In UK cinemas it was a AA, restricting it to audiences aged fourteen and over: nowadays it would almost certainly earn a 12.
The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced. That's an unusual ratio for an Australian film of its time, but unless this transfer is missing material at the sides, it appears to be correct. The film is certainly grainy, but no more so than other Australian features of the time. The IMDB says that the film was shot in 16mm, but other sources say 35mm and to these eyes that's what it looks like. It's not clear what element was used for this transfer, but whatever it is, it seems a little over-contrasty, and there is certainly minor damage, such as scratches and spots, often where the beginnings and ends of film reels would be. In fact, a cue dot appears on screen at the end of what would have been reel three.
The extras begin with The Making of 'Sunday' (23:34) a SAFC-produced making-of documentary directed by Edwin Scragg. This was intended for a half-hour slot on commercial television: if you didn't know that, the fade-to-black with a jump on the soundtrack halfway through is a giveaway. We see several sequences being set up and shot, and Hannam, producer Matt Carroll, cinematographer Geoff Burton, Jack Thompson and stunt coordinator Grant Page are all interviewed. You can see the effects of the wettest wet season in fifty years as Page sets up the car crash with which the film opens.
Also on the disc is a poster and stills gallery, self-navigating and running 5:35, and a PDF reproduction of the Adelaide World Premiere programme, reproduced even down to the ads for Ansett Airlines and the Town House Adelaide at the back.