SXSW Film Review: The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

Period Australian drama shows our modern sins are old

Leah Purcell in The Drover's Wife

The Drover’s Wife is not an easy watch. Adapted from the 1892 Henry Lawson story of the same name, it’s an epic by short story standards, about a woman protecting her children on the Australian frontier while her husband’s off droving cattle – replete with the requisite daily tragedies of the genre.

For the first half of the film, it plays like a classic Western, with a cast of recognizable archetypes: the “good” cop and bumbling sidekick, the misunderstood fugitive, the spunky young wife – one exception is the well-drawn Molly herself, played subtly and with heartbreaking emotional control by director Leah Purcell herself. Unfortunately, the story drags for the first half of the film, and the downright cheesy score and ending song disrupts scenes that could have carried the emotional weight better on their own.

But it’s the arrival of the Indigenous fugitive into Molly’s life that radically shifts the context of the narrative and makes it more than a typical frontier thriller. In the second half, the film finds its stride and reveals its true colors as a study of Indigenous female identity in late 1800s Australia. Thematic undercurrents of sexism and racism come to the surface as the parallels between Molly’s life and the injustices of our modern world become apparent, no doubt informed by Purcell’s own experience.

Sometimes that comparison feels anachronistic or heavy-handed – the Indigenous fugitive that tells Molly her family secrets says his only crime was “existing while Black” – but other times Purcell’s commentary hits like a sucker punch. The Sergeant's well-meaning proto-suffragist wife writes a newsletter advocating for battered women’s rights; she thinks she’s “giving women a voice!” Molly, who’s lived that experience, says “I could only hear you.” From the confines of a literal jail cell that the activist’s husband put her in, Molly tells her “you write from the outside.” That couple exemplifies the gamut of modern activism’s sins: At best, well-meaning but out-of-touch; at worst, doing lip service but really an active part of institutional oppression and preserving the status quo.

The ending attempts some kind of hope, but as a whole the film leaves a bitter taste. No matter how inspiring Molly’s character is, we see racist and sexist violence playing out in the same ways today. But there’s a reason Purcell has adapted this story three times; it’s rife with material to mine on the subtler aspects of bigotry, white-passing, law enforcement, and white feminism that are always worth exploring, even and especially if they will never be resolved.

The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

Narrative Spotlight

World Premiere

Read our interview with the star and director, "Leah Purcell Writes and Rights History in The Drover's Wife," March 18.

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