The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson – a movie review by Alex First

May 4, 2022 by Alex First
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Magnificently shot, The Drover’s Wife is a story of hardship concerning a woman living in the Australian bush trying her best to raise four young children.

This is the first Australian feature film with an Indigenous woman writing, directing and performing the lead role.

She is Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell) – as the title suggests, the wife of a drover in the Snowy Mountains who disappears for months at a time.

The year is 1893 and as we are introduced to her, we see she is also having alarming flashbacks.

Molly is no shrinking violet. She is highly capable, independent and resolute.

She has a great deal of faith in her eldest, 12-year-old Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts) – wide-eyed, impressionable and responsible.

Johnson is visited by the new lawman in the region, Sergeant Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica de Gouw), who have travelled from England.

She has an immediate impact on them, firstly greeting them with the barrel of a gun, then impressing them with her stoicism.

Sergeant Clintoff’s first case is a murder investigation.

Six people lay dead, including children and the prime suspect is an Indigenous man, Yadaka (Rob Collins).

Unbeknown to Molly, wanted posters are in wide circulation and then he turns up wounded outside her place.

Although suspicious, due to her personal circumstances, she agrees to give him a brief refuge, after which Yadaka bonds with Danny.

Mind you, the trio’s ordeals have only just begun.

The Drover’s Wife combines the poetic and lyrical with a more conventional narrative arc.

The film has been inspired by Purcell’s personal stories and incorporates her own lived experience and those of her ancestors.

It is a reimagining of her play and Henry Lawson’s classic short story.

As an actor, Purcell excels, investing heavily in her role.

Malachi Dower-Roberts has a strong presence as the youngster who has seen and heard far too much at a tender age.

The landscape cinematography by Mark Wareham (Don’t Tell) is nothing short of breathtaking. It is hard to get enough of these astounding vistas.

Evocative, too, is the original music by Salliana Seven Campbell.

Purcell, who in addition to starring, also wrote, directed and co-produced the piece takes a while to get into the meat of the story.

A telling conversation a half hour or so in changes the dynamic and gives the film a greater sense of urgency and alarm.

Before then, although deliberately measured, I found it somewhat too laboured.

Given subsequent developments, it becomes compelling, if disturbing.

To that end, the messaging about women’s and Indigenous rights is hit hard.

Although not as impactful as The Nightingale (2018), The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is still powerful and leaves a lasting impression.

Running time: 108 mins

Rated MA, it scores a 7½ out of 10.

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