“Friday night too tired; Saturday night too drunk; Sunday, too far away.”
– “The Shearer’s Wife’s Lament”
Sunday Too Far Away is a film that never quite settles on its identity or purpose. It begins with a bang (or rather, a car crash) and contains moments of unadulterated melodrama, with actor Jack Thompson screaming to the sky in remorse at one point. Even so, it is the more quaint and grounded sequences of sheep shearers going about their work that ring truest. These moments are rooted deeply within social realist cinema, and the everyday interactions of these men and the women in their lives reveal far more than any of the other, more grandiose statements the film attempts to make. Released in 1975 and directed by Ken Hannam, the movie takes place on a sheep station in 1955, the threat of a union strike and the pending arrival of non-union labourers looming.
Perhaps the most fascinating sequence in the film takes place when the owner of the sheep station’s daughter, Sheila, who catches Thompson’s character Foley stealing lemon essence in her father’s home, convincing him to allow her to watch the men work the next day. She has never seen what the men do in the sheds because women are not allowed inside. When she enters the shed the men object; shearing is a man’s game. After an explanation from Foley, the men reluctantly allow Sheila to stay, but only for the first run. This sequence turns the film on its ear, and instead of glorifying the men and their work, we see what these men do through the eyes of a woman – it is rendered horrifyingly. Throughout the course of Sunday Too Far Away, we watch the men go about their daily work. The film glorifies the male body with close-ups of the men’s muscles as they shear with beads of sweat dripping off their bodies, reveling in the beauty of the male physique. This is why the sequence with Sheila comes as such a shock. From this moment on there is an underlying tension within the film as the tropes of the men’s job begin to weigh upon them.
The sequence begins with Sheila out of focus in the background and Foley glancing at her in the foreground. The men are all unhappy with her presence. This is the first time the viewer sees things from a woman’s point-of-view. The men begin to roughhouse with each other, almost trying to make up for the feminine energy that is now in the room. She smiles and finds it all amusing. The work bell rings and the men get to work and begin to drag in the sheep for shearing. The camera dollies along the men working. Foley, covered in sweat, takes a swig of water. Sheila is thoroughly enjoying herself until she witnesses one of the men wrestling a sheep (much like the men did with each other a few moments ago) to the floor and into submission and then shaves off its coat. The act that was once beautiful now appears brutal. She looks down. She does not want to watch anymore.
The editing of the film renders the men as well as the sheep into abstract compositions, revealing an arm here, a leg there, never fully showing a man or a sheep. Sheila begins to look up one more time and turns to the right to catch a glimpse of a sheep devoid of its coat and completely naked. Horrified, she turns away. The music parallels the tension building inside her and exudes a stressing presence. When the men finish their work she thanks them for letting her watch and enter their world. They turn, glance at her, and say nothing, and go back to their business as if she was never even there.
For the first time in Sunday Too Far Away the film truly reveals the violence in the men’s livelihood. Day after day they go to work, drag sheep from their pen, wrestle them into submission and shear off the only thing of worth the sheep has to offer, leaving it a naked and shaking body on the floor, covered with cuts and scrapes. Then they kick it out the door. One cannot help but make the observation that the sheep are a metaphor for the men themselves being shuttled from one shearing station to the next, stripped of all the things society has to offer as the world goes on without them, far removed from society. The looming threat of a union strike and scab labour coming in to replace the men also shows that they are nothing more than a commodity that can be bought, sold, or traded in for something better and cheaper. In fact, earlier in the film, the owner of the shearing station demands that the men take special care of the sheep, especially his prized specimens, and to be mindful not to accidentally castrate them with their shears. Parallels emerge between the men and the faux-castrated sheep: there is almost no mention of women in the lives of these men, save for one, Old Garth, who is divorced, has not seen his son in five years and wants nothing to do with him.
Sheila’s presence allows viewers to see the lives of these men differently, and in some ways the men begin to as well. As the threat of a union strike comes to fruition the men ultimately have to choose whether they will stand with the union or allow the bosses to treat them no better than the sheep that they shear. One final interesting note is that in the initial script and cut of the film, Sheila was to have been granted a greater presence, and begin to have romance with Foley (1). Had Sheila been granted more screen time there might have been a more developed critique of what the men do. It would also give greater resonance to the title of the film, an expression derived from a sheep shearer’s wife’s lament at the lives these men lead.