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The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson – movie review

Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife* is a story of hardship and resilience. This magnificently shot film follows a woman living in the Australian bush trying her best to raise four young children.

Purcell plays Molly Johnson, a woman living in the Snowy Mountains in 1893. Molly’s husband – as the title suggests – is a drover who disappears for months at a time.  Molly is no shrinking violet. She’s highly capable, independent and resolute; but she’s also having alarming flashbacks.

Molly trusts her eldest, 12-year-old Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts). The new lawman in the region is Sergeant Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica de Gouw). They’ve recently arrived from England. Molly 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 (including children) are dead and the prime suspect is an Indigenous man, Yadaka (Rob Collins). He’s a wanted man when he turns up wounded at Molly’s place; though she doesn’t know that. Although suspicious, she agrees to give him a brief refuge. Yadaka soon bonds with Danny. But the trio’s ordeals have only just begun.

The Drover’s Wife combines the lyrical with a more conventional narrative arc. Purcell’s personal stories inspired the film, and it incorporates her own lived experience and those of her ancestors. This is a re-imagining of her play and Henry Lawson’s classic short story of the same title.

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.

The film 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.

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

Alex First

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