The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is an ambitious yet shaky filmic adaptation: Brisbane International Film Festival Review

Lending an air of femininity to the western genre – one so often entangled with a masculine temperament – without compromising its rooted personality, Leah Purcell‘s The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is the cinematic incarnation of her penned 2016 stage play and 2019 novel, all inspired by Henry Lawson‘s short story, “The Drover’s Wife”.

Purcell, serving as the film’s screenwriter and director, leads the charge as the titular Molly Johnson, a wife and mother (she has four kids and another on the way) whose drover husband has been away for the better part of 3 months and, as she hopes, is expected to return imminently.  Written and performed in the most confident of manners, Molly suffers no fools, but even still she feels uneasy and upended at the arrival of Yadaka (Rob Collins), an Aboriginal man on the run from the law after being accused of murder.

Given the the confidence Purcell initially shows behind the camera in navigating her story, and presenting her character as both a feminist and proud Indigenous woman – a natural reflection of Purcell herself – it’s a shame that The Drover’s Wife eventually seems to sideline its own protagonist.  Tonally, the film feels uneven too, unsure how it wants to frame Molly, Yadaka, and the minute ensemble of players flowing in and out of the picture.  These characters – including Sam Reid and Jessica de Gouw as a British Sergeant and his wife – aren’t invaluable to the narrative, but they can’t help but feel like co-pilots in a story that should truly be one driven solo.

Though the story continues to stumble as it moves along – the film loves to bank on plot conveniences – Purcell and Collins rarely falter with their performances.  Both incredibly steely in their convictions, the two bring out a vulnerability in each other which helps soften their gritty exterior which, in turn, assists the audience in warming to a duo of characters that may appear too rough to relate to.  Perhaps The Drover’s Wife greatest asset though is its landscape aesthetic and the fact that, despite being based on a stage play, bares little in terms of being a production that was stifled by limited space and distinct direction.

Largely avoiding the stage-to-screen trappings, The Drover’s Wife may not always land in its storytelling but it’s difficult to fault Purcell’s desire and commitment to bring this story to the screen.  There’s promise throughout, though her inherent closeness to the material may have ultimately been a blinding hindrance and, if the uneasy mentality adhered to here is anything to go by, it’s probably for the best that this is one story she finally rests.

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is screening as part of this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival, which is being presented in-person between October 21st and 31st, 2021.  For more information head to the official BIFF page.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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