Tonight I saw The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, written and directed by and starring Leah Purcell in the lead role. She is a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman who has been filmmaking and acting on stage and screen for over twenty years. In terms of her directorial work for the screen, in the past she has directed some TV episodes and a couple of documentaries, such as Black Chicks Talking. But this film is her feature directorial debut and is an adaptation of a play she wrote that she originally starred in based on the short story The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson.
The film is about a pregnant woman named Molly Johnson living alone with her children in the Snowy Mountains whose husband has mysteriously disappeared. And while her children are away, her water breaks just as she discovers a wounded Aboriginal man named Yadaka on her doorstep.
This was a great film that tells a story about identity and heritage from a time when stories were only one way in Australia. And this was delivered so well by it’s two main cast Purcell and Rob Collins. And just the entire cast was spot on with their performances. It’s also shot beautifully, and the costuming and makeup were authentic. The story also cleverly ties in presentism to its setting, which is honestly the best way to do period fiction.
I will have to say that this film does come with a content warning from me. This is an Indigenous story, and it’s also a violent film. There’s domestic violence, gun violence and sexual assault. And then, there are also two cases of lynchings. And it’s the portrayal of that last one that I want to discuss. Neither case shows it happening. You see the aftermath of one of them, and it’s in the dark. And the last one shows you just before it happens and sweeps to another cut. Even though I say this is a violent film, when you compare it to High Ground and The Nightingale, it’s not as shocking as those. But I think I handled the violence in those films better even though they are way more brutal because the characters you get the most attached to in those films didn’t get killed off. Whereas in this case, you get very attached to the characters this affects. And I think that’s why I had a more upset response while watching. I’m not saying either one is bad. I think portraying violence in cinema should be allowed, especially when telling stories about colonialism. But audiences have different feelings about violence, and they can change depending on context and style. I know some people don’t like the violence in High Ground and The Nightingale, but maybe unlike me, they might handle the violence better in this film instead.
Ultimately though all of the films end with some hope or at least cartharsis which definitely helped all cases.
So those are the positives and neutrals. I only have one negative about this film: the music. Most of it is fitting, but there is an odd use of electric guitar that was really out of place when it came in. Also, there is a diegetic song sung by one of Molly’s sons, which gets a full rendition during the credits, which I thought was a bit over-produced.
But in any case, I think out of all the films I’ve seen this year and plan to see; this one will probably end up being the most underrated. So if you can see this film, please do. Purcell as a director, is off to a solid start and already has two more movies on the way, so I will be looking forward to seeing if she can keep it up. And for an alternative recommendation if you wanted a more light-hearted story about Aboriginal women I would point you toward The Sapphires.