The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson – A class on colonialism

Powerful performances are let down by heavy-handed undergraduate didactics

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson
    
Director: Leah Purcell
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid, Jessica De Gouw, Malachi Dower-Roberts, Benedict Hardie, Harry Greenwood, Tony Cogin
Running Time: 1 hr 47 mins

The revisionist Australian western has a long and honourable history, taking in Mad Dog Morgan, The Proposition, The Nightingale, various Ned Kelly retellings and – if we're stretching the definition to breaking point – a few Mad Max films. Leah Purcell, an Aboriginal polymath of great energy, adds a creditable addition to the genre with her third expansion of Henry Lawson's influential 1892 story The Drover's Wife. Purcell made a play of the piece in 2016, a novel in 2019 and, to complete the trilogy, this handsome, widescreen motion picture.

The director and screenwriter stars as the hard-bitten, heavily pregnant occupant of a piece of scrappy land adjacent to the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales. As we begin, this Molly Johnson is minding her children unassisted – her husband is forever away driving sheep – and paying cautious welcome to Nate (Sam Reid), an English policeman, and his reform-minded wife, Louisa (Jessica De Gouw). They agree to transport her younger children to relatives as she prepares for the birth. Nate finds himself investigating a murder. The suspect, an Aboriginal man named Yadaka (Rob Collins), stumbles on to Molly's land and the two form an uneasy partnership. You don't need a degree in postcolonial studies to discern the story is not going to run smoothly to a merry conclusion.

Though there is barely a smidgen of the ferocity we saw in Jennifer Kent’s brilliant The Nightingale from 2018, The Drover’s Wife does a decent job of fleshing out the authorities’ unforgiving attitude to supposed dissenters. The truth about Molly’s life is teased out in an engaging series of often traumatising flashbacks as the tension builds effectively.

Unfortunately, the longer the film goes on the more blankly didactic it becomes. Louisa has a particular habit of running through the iniquities of contemporaneous gender relations like an undergraduate in a tutorial. One hugely ill-judged late moment of (literal) graphic protest feels – even if there is some historical justification – anachronistic to the point of absurdity.


Purcell's performance just about keeps the structure upright. She is an enormously charismatic actor who makes a Mother Courage for the ages of an already resonant Australian icon. One longs to see her in something with a bit more iron in its blood.

Opens on May 13th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist