Friday, March 19, 2021

SXSW with Abe: The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

I’m thrilled to be covering SXSW for the third time. This year, I’m not in Austin, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson
Directed by Leah Purcell
Narrative Spotlight

In almost any civilization, people are quick to deem something they view as different from them dangerous and threatening. It’s easy to find innumerable instances of foreigners or natives being blamed by whatever populace pronounces themselves the dominant standard for crime, financial ruin, or any other societal ailment. Those who might be theoretically aligned with that typical group but have never really seen eye-to-eye with its tendencies or felt fully embraced are likely to be less discriminating and more open to seeing people for who they are. That openness on the edge of civilization is the subject of this slow-burn Outback period drama.

In 1893, Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell) looks after her many children while also very pregnant with her next child. Her husband has been absent for some time, working as a drover for sheep for long stretches. Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) pass through en route to the lawman’s new post, where his first task is to hunt down Yadaka (Rob Collins), an Aboriginal man wanted for murder. When Yadaka arrives on Molly’s property, she is wary of his presence but gives him a safe place to stay, learning more about him and herself in the process.

This film is based on Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story about the resilience of the strong-willed mother and Leah Purcell’s staged 2016 play. It’s a narrative that speaks to Australian culture and the Outback in particular, but it’s certainly applicable to so many places in the world where white immigrants have imposed imperialistic views and policies on people who lived there long before they ever thought to arrive. There’s nothing modern about this film, which is firmly set in the past, but the ideals it navigates are absolutely relevant to the white supremacy and victimization of minorities currently happening around the world.

Purcell pulls triple duty as director, writer, and star, imbuing Molly with a stern protective nature, one that makes her well-suited for survival. Collins humanizes Yadaka, making it clear that he is far from the villain he has been made out to be by authorities seeking his head. Reid and De Gouw embody interesting supporting characters whose roles don’t feel all that relevant. This film boasts strong production values that make its setting and story feel real, though it never really manages to come alive. As a metaphor or a morality lesson, this film works well, but as a viewing experience, it’s not nearly as engaging or riveting.


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