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The Western is considered a staunchly American genre. After all, it was created in America and helped to define the myth of American exceptionalism so that does make sense. However, the US’s ownership of the Western is tenuous at best with its back-and-forth influence with Samurai films and spaghetti westerns. There’s one country that has truly laid claim to the genre, thanks in large part to the fact that it had its own wild west and frontier men and women: Australia. The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is, on the surface, one of these.
However, underneath (not very far at all) is a deconstruction of the western mythos, of the brave cowboy (drover), of the white-washed tales told by filmmakers and authors of brave men and their moral codes. The film is a look past that, adapting an Australian classic, into a modern tale that peels back the rose-colored glasses of the genre for a relentlessly sobering film that delivers on much more than most films in the genre.
The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson
Director: Leah Purcell
Release Date: N/A
The Drover’s Wife is a short story by the legendary Australian writer and poet Henry Lawson. For those not versed in the story, it involves the wife of a Drover during the colonial times of Australia living in the outback, who must protect her children from a snake and other dangers on her own. The film, which is based on both the novel and play that director Leah Purcell also wrote, takes this idea and dives deeper into the life of the titular drover’s wife, expanding her backstory to that of far more than just survival against the harsh life of a frontier woman.
Molly Johnson (Purcell) is at the center of all of this. A mother of four children living in a ramshackle cottage the film opens with her defending the house from a wild bull and then meeting the new police officer of the nearest town, Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid), and his feminist wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw). Having sent her children into town to more easily handle her pregnancy Molly is visited by an aboriginal man named Yadaka (Rob Collins), who Molly becomes attached to as he and her eldest son bond as well. However, a dark secret haunts Molly and Yadaka is being chased by Sergeant Klintoff for a series of gruesome crimes he did not commit.
The film, unlike the book, introduces us to a fully fleshed-out woman, hardened by the natural elements but also by the life she’s been forced into. The latter part of her character unfolds throughout the film as the movie expands on her past experiences and adds new traumas on top of them, often feeling relentlessly cruel to its lead character. Yet, those cruelties are closer to the truth than Lawson’s original short story and deliver a stark evaluation of the Western’s glorification of the white cowboy on a perfect steed. The film addresses, in often brutal ways, issues of race, sex, loss, motherhood, while it unpacks a genre it is constantly subverting by focussing the brutal nature of the Australian outback and the men in it.
Purcell is stone-cold fantastic throughout the film. Her face has the kind of chiseled, hard-edged, worn down, rugged quality that has come to define the heroes of Westerns but her performance is far more nuanced. Though Molly Johnson is not a woman who wears her emotions on her sleeves, Purcell imbues her with layers that seem to be struggling to escape from her impervious face. She delivers a withering look at could rival John Wayne and in the next moment a thousand-yard stare that speaks volumes. It’s the kind of performance that makes you want to both see her show up as a badass Dirty Harry type and at the same time never do something that wouldn’t allow her to perform so many layers. It’s clear this character means a lot to hear and she embodies it completely.
Near its end, The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson can get a little hamfisted as it tries to wrap its storylines up in meaningful ways. The film, which has been relentlessly oppressive feels like it’s awkwardly trying to shine a ray of light on its subjects for a moment. In some aspects, it works but in others, it starts feeling a bit too much. This is especially true for the storyline focussing on Louisa and Sergeant Klintoff. The pair’s role in the film, especially Louisa, often seems simply to espouse the themes and messages of the movie itself when that is hardly needed, and it leads to a conclusion that feels disconnected from the rest of the movie.
The Drover’s Wife is a film that looks that part too. Purcell directs the movie as a mix of the Western’s it’s influenced by and the stageplay it’s based on. It feels at times like a small contained story and at others like the entire outback is weighing down on Molly’s shoulders. The sweeping vista of classic Westerns are there but they are counterbalanced by an up-close personal story that’s told in the barest amount of settings. It all adds up to a Western that buries deep into the genre’s mythos and comes out with something dire.