In this Australian film indigenous director/screenwriter Leah Purcell has taken Henry Lawson’s short story, “The Drover’s Wife,” and changed it to reveal the brutality of life for indigenous people and those with a foot in both worlds. Yet her feminist view takes on too many topics to bring a cohesive conclusion in the span of 109 minutes.
In the original 1892 story, a woman is alone in the Outback in a small shack with her four children. Her husband, the drover, spends half a year away, driving sheep. While he’s away, a snake crawls under the home, the wife must wait with her dog until it reappears to kill is in order to protect her children.
The film has no dogs. Purcell’s adaptation began as an award-winning play centered on the titular character, Molly Johnson, has been made into a novel and now is a movie.
In the film, Johnson is heavily pregnant, living in the remote Snowy Mountains, a distance from the Everton, a settlement struggling to bring civilization to the outback. Instead of a snake, Johnson must deal with a wild bull that wanders on to her property. After shooting it dead, much to the delight of her eldest, the 12-year-old Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts), she butchers and roasts the meat. The smell draws some hungry passersby: Sgt. Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his journalist wife, Louisa (Jessica De Gouw). Clintoff is joining the Everton law force. His wife hopes to make a career for herself. Johnson feeding them, Molly also offers a romantic vision of her husband, walking in the sunset, but does she really miss him?
While her husband Joe is away, an aboriginal man, Yadaka, turns up. He’s on the run from the colonial authorities. Johnson has to make a decision, partially forced by her labor pains. There’s a murder, racism, colonial oppression to deal with, and a bit about domestic violence. None are given full attention, ending in a bit of a muddle. There will be a happy ending and even a link to Lawson’s story.
The feminist angle is unwieldy. One wishes for either a series to fully explore the themes or a deft editing down of the issues. There are some disturbing images so this unrated film is not family fare.
“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” made its world premiere at the SXSW Online 2021 festival. Running time is 109 minutes.