The Movie Waffler SXSW 2021 Review - THE DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON | The Movie Waffler

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SXSW 2021 Review - THE DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON

With her husband away on a cattle drive, a woman gives refuge to an aboriginal fugitive.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Leah Purcell

Starring: Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid, Jessica De Gouw


To say multi-hyphenate artist Leah Purcell is obsessed with Australian author Henry Lawson's 1892 short story 'The Drover's Wife' is something of an understatement. The arrival of her directorial debut, The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, marks Purcell's third time adapting Lawson's story, first as a play, then as a novel. The original story is a simple folk tale of a drover's wife who fends off a snake from attacking her children while her husband is away driving livestock to market. In Purcell's multimedia expansions it becomes a tale of domestic abuse and racial identity.


In the film, Purcell casts herself in the title role of Molly Johnson, who finds herself facing down a bullock, which she promptly shoots and turns into a splendid roast for her children while her husband is away on a cattle drive. But before she pulls the trigger, something causes her to halt, illustrated by a flashback to another incident that saw Johnson forced to wield a shotgun.


You won’t need to be a genius to quickly figure out what's going on here, but Purcell persists with playing it as a mystery, occasionally cutting back to that flashback in a manner meant to tease but which just makes us shrug. It's so blatantly obvious what Johnson did to make her feel so haunted by her actions that you'll be scratching your head as to why Purcell doesn't just lay this information out from the off. Had she done so, it would have added an extra layer of suspense to a clunky narrative that badly needs it.


Just after Johnson has sent her kids off to the local missionary while she awaits the birth of her latest sprog, a fugitive aborigine, Yadaka (Rob Collins), arrives at her farm, bound in chains. It's at this moment that her water breaks, and though Yadaka helps her with her labour, the child is stillborn. Johnson allows Yadaka to hide out on her farm for a couple of days until the next full moon, whose light he plans to use as a guide across the treacherous outback.


It's ironic that just at the point where Johnson breaks Yadaka's chains, Purcell's film becomes shackled by its literary and stage roots. The storytelling is overly reliant on dialogue, with plot revelations dished out through speeches in the manner of a daytime soap opera. As Johnson and Yadaka, Purcell and Collins are captivating, but they're hamstrung by a script that struggles to make its points regarding gender and identity without resorting to speechifying. Both the attitudes of characters and their dialogue come off as anachronistic - when asked what crime he's accused of, Yadaka replies "Existing while black," while a supporting character of a policeman's proto-suffragette wife, Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), exists solely to hammer home the film's feminist themes.


Thanks to a combination of Australia's natural landscape and the cinematography of Mark Wareham, The Drover's Wife is very easy on the eye. But Purcell can't translate her film's visual splendour into visual storytelling, and in her directorial debut she struggles with the two key fundamentals of narrative filmmaking – the establishment and communication of time and space. The geography of the area is particularly confusing, as early on we're told the nearest town is but a few hours ride from Johnson's farm, yet later, when the town's newly assigned sheriff (Sam Reid) attempts to ride out to warn Johnson of Yadaka's escape, he finds it an oddly formidable journey despite Johnson's son having literally just walked home from town! Similarly, it's difficult to figure out just what length of time the film is playing out over – it seems only a couple of days have passed on Johnson's farm, yet in town, Louisa has already managed to get herself settled in and knock out a pamphlet on women's rights.



Based on Purcell's performance in the title role, I imagine her stage production might have had quite the impact. But in translating her take on Lawson's story to screen, she seems to have bitten off more than she can chew. With a more experienced cinematic hand at the wheel, The Drover's Wife might have been the latest in a growing line of impressive Aussie westerns, but so crude and clunky is the storytelling here that it never feels like anything more than a modern manifesto in period drag.

The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson
 played online at the SXSW Film Festival 2021.