THE DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON (SXSW 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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It’s hard to escape iconic bush poet Henry Lawson if you grow up in Australia with any expectations of being a patriot – that is, of course, if you are white. Second only perhaps to Banjo Paterson, Lawson’s short stories and poems about colonial Australia are so deeply entrenched in the contemporary cultural imaginary that even if you have no recollection of specific texts per se, their textures, tones, and themes are now so ingrained that they feel inseparable from contemporary rhetoric around the so-called “little Aussie battler”. This concept has been politically weaponized so heavily in recent decades that it can be considered a key pillar of how white Australia sees itself – always the victim, not the perpetrator or beneficiary of the gross inequalities that still plague the nation post colonization.

Rather than a general history lesson, this is all fundamental to what makes Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson such a fundamentally radical text. Beginning its life as a play, then a novel and now a film, Purcell’s authorship of all three tether it so closely to her as a central figure that it feels as much now to be as much “Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife” as it does “Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife”, adapted as it is from Lawson’s 1892 short story of the same name.

Lawson’s writing is typically male-centric and it’s hard to frame him as a friend to women. His outward racism and denigration of Australia’s First Nations people across his oeuvre is even more blatant. That Purcell – not just a woman, but an Indigenous Australian woman – took this story and turned it into something so uniquely her own transcends literature, theatre and film individually, and marks her Drover’s Wives, if you will, as a collective, multi-format corrective revision of a kind of Australian colonial masculinity that has been let off the hook for far too long.

For non-Australian audiences in particular, I imagine it might be hard to watch The Drover’s Wife and resist the temptation to draw parallels with Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, so this brief history lesson is an important one as it would be far too easy to miss precisely what it is here Purcell has done that is so exciting, so subversive, and so radical in her act of literary reclamation. Like The Nightingale, the film pivots largely around the relationship between a man and a woman from very different cultural and social positions based largely on their perceived race. Gendered violence and a revenge also feature heavily, but The Drover’s Wife deviates from The Nightingale significantly if only due to their very different histories, both in terms of their productions and their broader cultural legacies.

Set in the harsh but beautiful Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales, Purcell plays Molly Johnson, a hard-working mother left to fend for herself and her children while her husband – as the title suggests – is a stockman, away from home for long periods of time as he goes droving. In Purcell’s version, an escaped Aboriginal convict and alleged killer Yadaka (Rob Collins) seeks sanctuary with Molly, who begrudgingly grants it. As Molly’s secrets slowly come to the surface, the community is divided, and her fate – as well as Yadaka’s – lie in the hands of the white settlers, some sympathetic to her cause, and others openly hostile.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).