The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is a fascinating perspective on the female and black Aboriginal experience through the tropes of Westerns.
The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is an Australian Western arising from a black Aboriginal artist. Leah Purcell (Wentworth) takes center stage as the director, writer, and titular star of the film. She brings a crisp, subversive voice to a smart and gritty performance. Purcell, like her character, is a light-skinned Aboriginal woman and clearly brings that particular experience to the forefront. Her Molly Johnson is a woman left to tend a farm and raise her children alone. Eventually, she comes to find herself paired with a dark skinned Aboriginal fugitive. The two engage in a furtive and subtle flirtation as the gears of tragic confrontation gradually close upon them.
This is a difficult film for me to discuss. There is so much admirable on display here. I feel I’m obligated to write with some measure of deference to the storytelling sensibilities of the Aboriginal black writer, director, and star at the film’s lead. The film brings a unique voice and earned indignance about the treatment of both women and Australian blacks. I understand as well that the film intends, at least in part, to echo the cultural storytelling mechanism of Leah Purcell’s heritage. It’s a noble, and often fascinating, structure.
Nevertheless, I frequently found myself frustrated by the brusque treatment of significant side plots and characters. While I recognize that a great oral storytelling is necessarily predicated on a focused personal experience – here, the titular Molly Johnson’s – as a film, it’s not as effective. It gives the film a shaggy quality that would be easier to ignore on stage with a live audience’s more personal intimacy, or certainly while listening to a storyteller. When the film is focused on Molly and her nuanced relationship with Yadaka, the storytelling is positively vibrant. When the film is focused on broader plot machinations including – among other things – an English couple newly moved to a neighboring town and their difficulty with disease, the bloodlines of Mary’s children, and various other plot threads. It seems both to the filmmaker that these beats are essential for how they’ll coalesce, but are ultimately little more than necessary evils.
The film soars when it is focused on Molly and her interloper-cum-romantic interest Yadaka. Rob Collins (Extraction) is a wonderful, textured performer. That their love story never falls into a more risible sort of Dances with Wolves place is a tribute to the measured choice made in the film’s direction. Even as Molly’s own racial history is revealed, the actors keep the material grounded.
When the film – as Westerns are wont to do – turns to violence, The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson has a sharp, grounded brutality reminiscent of The Nightingale. The murders here are cold and vicious, the action sharp and final. When sexual violence occurs, it is brutal and matter-of-fact. Nothing here appears inclined to play at the edges of genre appeal, and that is a large part of what works best about the film.
I suspect my other struggle here – beyond the vignette-like structure exposing the film’s stage origins – is that the film is frequently too modern. It is perhaps hypocritical of me to adore something like Hamilton, an orgy of anachronism brought to life with a modern hip-hop flair, and criticize this film for the same. But I found the film’s music – pulsatingly modern – and the general anachronistic flavor of the dialogue immensely distracting. The film is so successful in crafting moments of stark Australian Western beauty and evoking a sense of time and place that I found the modernist bon mots particularly off-putting. My last image from the film is its climactic and perhaps most anachronistic moment. I’m left feeling utterly certain of Leah Purcell’s message – and her passion – and yet unmoored from Molly Johnson’s life.
Nevertheless, this is a good, important film. Two electric performances earn the emotion of a tender, nuanced love story. And, broadly, the film provides fascinating perspective on issues of race and gender.
The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson premiered at SXSW Online on March 18, 2021.
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