Between Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, and Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, there is this subgenre bubbling up that I like to describe as the “Oh right, Australia was racist as hell” cinematic sphere. So racist! Super-duper racist! The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is the latest entry in this growing tradition. Indigenous Australian Leah Purcell, who wrote the widely acclaimed 2016 play The Driver’s Wife, adapts her own material, directs, produces, and stars in the film. The result is a wholly confident, expectedly brutal appraisal of Australia’s colonialist history. It makes some predictable narrative choices and ends on a strange tonal note, but ultimately benefits from a strong ensemble led by Purcell herself.
Set in 1893, Purcell stars as heavily pregnant Molly Johnson, who is already mother of a rambunctious crew of young children. They live far off in the Australian wilderness, in a small one-room home on a large swath of land, and spend most months out of the year alone. Molly’s husband is a drover, responsible for transporting sheep all over Australia’s rugged country with the help of a reliable crew. While he’s away, Molly holds down their homestead, shooting a wild bullock to protect her family and slaughtering the meat so they can eat.
The smell attracts the new-to-Australia Sgt. Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid, who has a noticeable Sam Claflin vibe, and funnily enough, replaced him in Belle). He will head the nearby Everton Outpost, and his wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) plans to start writing a women’s-rights newsletter. The couple soon takes an interest in Molly. She can clearly take care of herself, but Australia can be a harsh country. Upon being assigned his first case—tracking and arresting an Indigenous man who the town’s wealthiest family claims killed six of their members—Nate decides to also find Molly’s husband to implore him to leave his current job and go home to protect Molly and the children. “Nothing delicate about our mountain women,” a townsperson says to Nate. Still, something nags him about a woman out there in the wilderness alone. Little does Nate know that the suspected murderer, Yadaka (Rob Collins), has already made it to the Johnsons’ and has already implored Molly to help protect him.
The bond between Molly and Yadaka isn’t immediate, since he initially threatens her and she pulls a gun on him. “An educated black is a danger in itself,” she says after he explains why he’s on the run, but his response (while sounding anachronistic), is nevertheless effective: “My crime, Missus? Existing whilst black.” Molly knows of isolation, and knows what it feels like to be blamed for things outside of her control. As Molly helps hide Yadaka, a member of the Guugu Yimithirr and Ngarigo tribes, from the men who are after him—both police and bounty hunters—the two of them develop a kind of understanding. And because The Drover’s Wife establishes itself early on, partially through flashbacks to a violent attack, as a fairly vicious movie, you know this can’t last.
Before then, though, Purcell unfurls The Drover’s Wife at a steady pace, assembling various narrative details—Molly’s husband’s absence, and tendency toward drunkenness and infidelity; her son’s protectiveness; the hypocrisy with which the town’s religious and judicial leadership lives—and then placing them within with the racist, sexist realities of 19th century Australia. Prostitutes are attacked on the town’s main thoroughfare. Nate walks by Indigenous people up for auction as explores the outpost for which he is now responsible. Rape is commonplace. The juxtaposition between the ugliness of these people’s actions and the beauty of this place, all wide-open sky, scrubby bushes and trees, and rugged mountain ranges, is a familiar component of this subgenre. It’s something The Nightingale and True History of the Kelly Gang do well, but the tactic is effective here, too.
Most successful are Purcell’s and Collins’s performances. The former, in a role she’s now played for years, is utterly confident, steely, and in control as Molly. One of her final scenes, in which she sparks against a well-meaning but ignorant Louisa, is a particular highlight. Collins, meanwhile, builds the film’s most layered performance as a man hunted by the same white people who have killed so many of his kind. It’s a shame that a late-film revelation isn’t given enough time to really resonate, and that Molly and Yadaka are only given one scene together after this plot twist. For a film that otherwise took its time building an interior world, The Drover’s Wife rushes too rapidly toward its conclusion, making for a discordant swing between crushing despair and lively optimism. Additional breathing room between those moments, and additional screen time shared between Purcell and Collins, would have further strengthened the already-impressive The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson.
The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson had its World Premiere at SXSW Online 2021.
Header Image Source: SXSW