Film review: ‘THE DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The new Australian film The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is very loosely based on a Henry Lawson short story from 1892.  Those seeing this film with a vague recollection of the original story, who may be expecting a quaint Australian folktale, are in for a shock… but a necessary one. This revisionist Australian western, which explores issues such as the status of and violence against women and colonial racism toward indigenous people, is a far more intense and confronting film than many might anticipate.  While at times a little too heavy handed and melodramatic, it’s often a grittily effective film, closer to potent dramas like The Nightingale and Sweet Country than the more genteel historically themed fare of the new Australian cinema of the 1970’s.

The film was written, directed by and starring Leah Purcell (Wentworth, Redfern Now) who adapted the concept from her stage play.  Set in the 1890’s, the film centres on the heavily pregnant Australian woman, Molly Johnson, who lives in a shack in the Snowy Mountains with her young children while her husband Joe is away working as a drover.  Highly protective of her home and family, she has no qualms about producing a gun at the slightest sign of trouble.  When indigenous man, Yadaka (Rob Collins) – who unbeknownst to Molly is wanted for murder – appears on her doorstep, she at first feels threatened and keeps a rifle trained on him. Soon, though, she and her 12-year-old son, Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts) warm to the articulate and thoughtful stranger. The police hunt for Yadaka, however, brings devastating violence to Molly’s home and exposes secrets and suppressed trauma for her.

Leah Purcell was clearly keen to show the brutality of life in Australia at that time but also remind us how those events still resonate today.  The characters constantly run headfirst into issues with which we’re still grappling, particularly family violence and racism.  In response to these, the film appropriately offers no easy answers and few noble heroics.

Accordingly, most of the characters are layered, ambiguous and flawed.  At first, Molly looks like a stoic, badass frontierswoman who wards off strangers with a rifle Clint Eastwood-style.  Through flashbacks and her slowly unspooling story we learn, however, that she’s a deeply traumatised person forced to extremes to defend herself and her children.  Yadaka is portrayed as a fundamentally decent man and even a fatherly role model to Danny but suspicion about the crimes of which he is accused still lingers.  The character, who in many films would be the designated hero, the well-mannered local cop and Boer War veteran, Sgt Klintoff (The Newsreader’s Sam Reid) still exhibits white male prejudices.  Within the limitations of their characters, all the leads are exceptional with Purcell giving a particularly powerful performance.

While the film explores vital issues, it doesn’t always weave these convincingly into the narrative. Sgt Klintoff’s wife Louisa’s (Jessica De Gouw) proto-feminist activism against family violence often seems like something from a completely different film while Yadaka’s story feels a little underdeveloped.  There are also issues with the film’s pacing.  While never dull, much of the film is spent introducing the characters and the world in which they live before it rushes to the violent conclusion.

Being an Australian film set largely in the wilderness, it was almost inevitable that there would be a host of stunning landscape shots and Purcell’s vibrant and emotional depiction of the natural world surrounding Molly is remarkable.

A few scripting stumbles mean this film doesn’t quite have the impact it should but much of it is gripping and at times moving.  Also, importantly, its messages about sexism and racism cut through powerfully.

Nick’s rating:     1/2

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Leah Purcell.

Release date: 5th May 2022.

Running time: 109 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.



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