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SXSW

MOVIE REVIEW
The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021)

Leah Purcell wrote, co-produced, directed and stars in “The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson,” a howl of despair against Australian racism and misogyny. Ms. Purcell adapted the film from a stage play she also wrote based on a short story by Henry Lawson, the deaf writer whose work is some of modern Australia’s foundational art. A woman alone on a farm, who must protect her children against threats of the animal and human variety, is an archetype of suffering. And my god, does the heroine of this movie suffer. But the movie’s strange inability to focus on the most important parts of her suffering weakens its overall impact, which is a crying shame.

It’s the 1910s and Molly (Ms. Purcell), nine months pregnant, is sweeping the dirt yard in front of her isolated little house late at night. A stray bullock wanders through and Molly goes inside, gets her 11-year-old son, Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts, an outstanding discovery), to fetch the gun, and shoots it dead. The next morning, the smell of the roasting meat attracts a unknown wagon, carrying Nate (Sam Reid) and Louisa Clintoff (Jessica De Gouw), emigrants from London, the new local policeman and his friendly journalist wife – except they’ve gotten lost and haven’t eaten in days. Molly lowers her gun and agrees to share the meal; in return the Clintoffs take the children into town to stay with a friend while Molly awaits her husband’s return. Molly goes for a walk, and returns after dark to find an escaped prisoner (Rob Collins) in her yard. There’s a dreadful standoff until her waters break. A wordless truce is agreed, but the next time we see Molly it’s apparent the baby has died. The prisoner takes care of her in return for his irons being cut off, and it slowly becomes apparent Molly and the prisoner, whose name is Yadaka, are more closely connected than they originally knew. But what has Yadaka done to find himself on the run? Why has Molly’s husband missed the drive for the first time in eight years? And can white Australians stop being unbelievably racist, just for a second?

That is not even half the movie’s action, not by a long chalk, but Ms. Purcell doesn’t quite seem to know how to pace her material. A female drover is dramatically established with her full name, a nickname and her fluency in an Aboriginal language, then never shown or mentioned again. Two drovers who Nate defeats in a violent fistfight on his first day in uniform, to the gleeful applause of the watching town, are significantly more important than their ass-over-teakettle introduction implies. And we are shown a great deal of Nate and Louisa’s home life, but while both Ms. De Gouw and Mr. Reid are excellent in depicting a happy marriage going sour, they are also not the point.

These would all have been minor niggles in a more confidently told story, especially since Yadaka, as portrayed by Mr. Collins, is obviously the most charismatic and attractive man within a thousand miles. He can teach Danny how to throw a spear, make a coffin for Molly’s baby, tell a brutally sad story without a whisper of self-pity, and fight with the heart of a lion. (Someone tell EON Productions to look at Mr. Collins very seriously for the next James Bond.) But in spite of Mr. Collins’s appeal, which is strong enough to recommend seeing the film for him alone, Ms. Purcell doesn’t know what to do with Yadaka, either. Some of Molly’s story is kept back to the very end, which makes little sense, either emotionally – the breath-taking rapport between Molly and Yadaka is such there’s no earthly reason why she wouldn’t have trusted him – or logistically – the big reveal is left so late in the running time that its full horror has no time to sink in before the credits roll. If the deadly secret had been made clear in the scene at the grave, everything could still have followed as it does, only with the audience having a better understanding of the horrifying scale of Molly’s suffering and Yadaka’s impotence in fixing it. It’s another strange mistake.

But Ms. Purcell carries the film with ease and her rapport with young Mr. Dower-Roberts is by far the best thing about the film. Danny is an eager, chatty child who is a devoted help to Molly; they love and understand each other deeply. Mr. Dower-Roberts is an incredible discovery, by turns silly and serious, capable of acting against Ms. Purcell as an equal, with an expressive face and a fine singing voice; this is his first film and will definitely not be his last. While it’s viciously plain that everything Molly has done is for her children, the other three are less important, and the dead child even less so. The decision to minimize Molly’s pain and grief at losing her baby in childbirth is also strange, especially considering Ms. Purcell was directing herself. What actress would turn down such an opportunity? But Ms. Purcell keeps Molly's feelings mostly hidden, even from herself. Neither Nate’s arc, from open-hearted gallant to massive bastard, nor Louisa’s from devoted wife to righteous virago, are nearly as interesting as it would have been to fully appreciate how a beaten and brutalized woman knows her true value is not in her body, but instead her mind. The final scene between Louisa and Molly is almost, but not quite, enough.

What does fully hit the mark are Mark Wareham’s gorgeous cinematography, including the moody interstitial timelapse shots of the New South Wales scenery, and Salliana Seven Campbell’s music, which makes heavy use of electric guitar, anachronism be damned. Although, to our eternal shame, the kind of suffering “The Drover’s Wife” depicts is not an anachronism either. An unwavering focus on Molly's story in addition to the beautiful sights and emotional sounds would have made this film a great one.

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