StarsStarsStarsStarsStars

While the Men Are Away, SBS review: desire will set you free

SBS's new dramedy nicely lampoons paranoid smalltown patriotism via the Women’s Land Army during WWII.

While the Men Are Away, SBS’s new eight-part series, is being promoted as an ‘often (but not always) wildly historically inaccurate’ dramedy about the Women’s Land Army during WWII. This narrative soil hasn’t really been ploughed in Australia, though its British counterpart inspired both a sitcom (Backs to the Land) and a cosy drama (Land Girls).

Instead, creators Monica Zanetti (Ellie & Abbie – & Ellie’s Dead Aunt)), Alexandra Burke (Sissy, 2067) and Kim Wilson (The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, Deadloch), and director Elissa Down (Ivy + Bean, The Black Balloon), describe a queer, intersectional homefront – and that’s where the anachronism lies.

Expecting the incongruous flippancy of Gold Diggers, instead I found an earnest period drama that champions today’s progressive values – economic independence, sexual freedom, and allyship across race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation – in opposition to a straight, white, bourgeois, Christian monoculture.

I should know not to expect much comedy from an Australian ‘dramedy’. But While The Men Are Away bait-and-switched me by kicking off with a knowing satire of 1940s propaganda newsreels.

A plum-voiced narrator chirpily sets the scene: the apple farm Harry (Bryce Youngman) fled to enlist in the war. ‘Or did he…?’ Italian glamourpuss Francesca (Michela De Rossi), ‘the wife Harry left behind’, is ‘not afraid of getting her hands dirty’ – she’s introduced giving her lover Rita (Ella Scott Lynch) a wristie in the town hall beneath a portrait of the King.

The same playfully retro narration introduces the other main characters. Harry’s spivvy younger brother Des (Benedict Hardie) ‘can barely do anything!’, and the two Women’s Land Army recruits who arrive to work the farm are ‘entitled city girl’ Gwen (Max McKenna) and ‘sheltered Jewish girl’ Esther (Jana Svedeniuk).

‘Getting behind the wheel to work the land that was stolen from her’, farmhand Kathleen (Phoebe Grainer) is clearly enjoying some self-determination, courtesy of the vibrating tractor she’s driving. (The brand: Power Bottom.) ‘If only she could be so enthusiastic about assimilation!’

Meanwhile, farmhand Robert (Matt Testro) is ‘one of those cowards who are conscientious objectors. He also likes stylish black-and-white nude photographs’ in magazines like Perfect Man. ‘Need I say more?’

Clearly not, because this satirical approach never appears again.

Pretty heavy

It’s a mystery how Francesca – ‘call me Frankie!’ – ended up married to Harry in the Australian farming town of Bush (‘founded in 1822 by Sir Lachlan Macquarie Murdoch Bush Jnr’ – one of many fun touches by production designer Alicia Clements (Safe Home). But she’s a capable person who takes advantage of being underestimated, while her brother-in-law Des really is hapless.

I was expecting more farcical shenanigans as Frankie and her farmworkers scramble to cover for Harry’s absence and work around Des’s bumbling intrusions. But the show shifts gear between comedy and drama as jarringly as that tractor. We’re meant to laugh at inconsequential stuff, then identify sincerely with the characters’ heavy personal struggles.

Phoebe Grainer as Kathleen and Shaka Cook as Murray. Image: SBS / LisaTomasetti.

For instance, in episode 1, Esther’s artistic talents are established with a fun joke – her candid sketch of Gwen sleeping on the train is as unflattering as a photograph. But later, as a gift for her crush Robert, Esther slips under his door a fan art-like portrait of him crying, which made me laugh in vicarious embarrassment.

Was the picture deliberately bad? I wasn’t sure. By now, we’ve learned that Robert’s conscientious objection has a lot to do with his traumatised, disabled WWI veteran father, who emotionally abused Robert and his meek mother Enid (Tara Morice). And Robert doesn’t react in a way that signals a joke; he seems genuinely moved.

Read: C*A*U*G*H*T review: help, the comedy’s AWOL

And while Des is established as a bumbling comic figure, he controls the money and connections Frankie needs. In an especially blunt metaphor, Des allows a new POW camp to be built on the property, underlining that only Frankie’s marriage into his family protects her from the anti-Italian sentiment that would otherwise see her interned.

This threat is real; Frankie has proper panic attacks and trauma flashbacks about her life in Italy. And when Des overhears the women laughing at his haplessness, he turns nasty, acting out that familiar Margaret Atwood quote about what men and women fear about each other.

Utopian fantasies

Kathleen also depends on Frankie’s freedom – even if she’s only paid in ration tickets – because she’s supporting two brothers on the local Aboriginal mission. But their lives there are strictly policed by Christian values: Neville (Googoorewon Knox) is now a priest, while Homer (Zavier Morris) is being trained as an altar boy. To see her family, Kathleen is reduced to fawning before ‘the Missus’ (Katrina Foster), the cruel mission manager.

I wish the show had roasted conservative mores a little harder, as when Kathleen, bored at church, imagines a lurid threesome with her boyfriend Murray (Shaka Cook) and ‘Hot Jesus’.

Phoebe Grainer and Michela De Rossi. Image: SBS / Lisa Tomasetti.

While The Men Are Away does nicely lampoon paranoid smalltown patriotism. The town of Bush is an interchangeable rotation of old white male wartime mayors, farewelling-the-troops tea dances with music supplied by incongruously talented child bands, and local matrons who gossip about the proposed Brisbane Line of defence: ‘But what about Adelaide? The City of Churches!’

But the show doesn’t transgress conventional mores nearly as often as it suspends them in favour of temporary utopian fantasies. I enjoyed the camaraderie provided by the ‘WLA Division Fruit Relief’ pickers, led by the initially terrifying but actually decent Brigadier Birdwood (Rebecca Massey), who include the openly gay Sadie (Gemma Ward).

Read: New Australian films to see at Adelaide Film Festival

The WLA unlocks new selves and desires for both Esther – who enjoys a midnight sexual awakening after Kathleen shares the Secret of the Tractor – and Gwen. Beginning as the show’s silliest and most annoying character, Gwen only becomes likeable once her yearning becomes intelligible.

And only when her patronising mother Helen (Sacha Horler) and smug beau Dickie (Jackson Heywood) show up with an engagement ring to end Gwen’s ‘nonsense’ does Gwen decide to act on her latent queerness.

Ultimately, the show’s most alluringly anachronistic fantasy is that desire sets you free.

While the Men Are Away premieres on SBS on 27 September, with all eight episodes available to stream on SBS on Demand.

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).