When we are little, we are told stories that mold our inspirations as human beings. Some tales are wrapped within decades of different versions and retellings for us to compare and contrast to. Thus, when we get older, our nostalgia gets the best of us when we see reimagining of these adolescent fables reborn in a new light. This is what writer-director-actress Leah Purcell does with The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, an updated version of Henry Lawson’s classic short story about a woman and her children surviving in a small shack outside of a little town in Australia.
Purcell plays the titular Molly Johnson, a mother of four children and pregnant with another on the way. Her husband is a drover, or what us Americans would call an experienced stockman who reins in cattle. Johnson and her children mostly tend to themselves until the newly appointed British Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife come onto their land before heading into town. The persuade Molly to allow them to take her children into town, so she can peacefully have her new baby without the distractions of the others. She agrees, thus setting off a chain of events that would lead to her losing the baby, as well as harboring an Aboriginal stranger named Yadaka (Rob Collins), who is on the run for murder.
The set up for this project is pretty great, given the slow, confident pace of the opening thirty or so minutes. We get a wonderful sense of the world Purcell is trying to build. Though Molly and her family live close to this town, they are very much their own people, struggling day by day to make do with what they have. It’s not a village like the one the Sergeant commands, but it’s their home, their place of freedom. This idea is runs through the character of Yadaka too, in that he is looking for his freedom from a world in which everyone around him is veil and cruel based on the color of his skin. There’s no wonder why these two character cross paths and connect because they are akin to one another, thus leading to great moments of conversation and silence throughout the middle of the picture.
With this said, the movie loses its focus when it is not on Molly and Yadaka, and instead, we spend plenty of time in town the Klintoff and his relationship with the Australian people of this small community. In what should have been minor scenes to the overall runtime of the final film, they run for long, repetitive sections at a time in which the audience will wonder if we are ever going to get back to the title of this story, the drovers wife. There was a point where you could start to wonder if Molly really is the main character of this movie. And it’s fine if this story wants to be about Klintoff and his struggle to adapt in a new world, but that doesn’t seem to be what The Drovers Wife is about. Clearly Purcell wants to connect all these stories and characters together, the problem is, there is no reason to in the end. And by doing this connective story, we lose momentum with Molly and her mission to get her kids back, and lose interest in the conclusion of the picture.
Maybe it’s because Purcell, who gives a truly profound, cold performance as Molly, juggled too many things to bring this project to light. Her direction is spot on, with great beauty shot with each frame, and giving the vast country hint of dust and blood that provide color and rigidness to the people. It’s the final script that ultimately lets her down, which is such a shame. Almost reminded me at times of the look of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, but not as focused on the central characters as much. Still, it’s fair to say that Purcell created a fine adaptation of the source material, she just didn’t add anything new worth saying to it, thus making The Drover’s Wife a little disappointing in the end.
This review is from the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.