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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
South By Southwest Has a New Investor
South By Southwest Has a New Investor
With 50% ownership in SXSW LLC, P-MRC provides “lifeline”

Kevin Curtin, April 18, 2021

SXSW Film Review: <i>When Claude Got Shot</i>
SXSW Film Review: When Claude Got Shot
Documentary goes beyond the headlines of Black-on-Black crime

Shane Pfender, April 7, 2021

More by Lina Fisher
May 1 Special Election Results: Austin Voters Tell City Leaders What They Don't Like
May 1 Special Election Results: Austin Voters Tell City Leaders What They Don't Like
Strong-mayor proposal fails spectacularly, while voters say "yes" to reinstating public camping ban

May 7, 2021

Election Ticker: It’s a Long, Long While From May to November ...
Election Ticker: It’s a Long, Long While From May to November ...

April 30, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

SXSW 2021, SXSW Film 2021, The Drover's Wife, Leah Purcell

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle