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Review: The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2022)

Henry Lawson’s 1892 classic Australian story undergoes its own postcolonial revisionism in The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson.

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Henry Lawson’s 1892 classic Australian story undergoes its own postcolonial revisionism in The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. Leah Purcell’s feature adaptation evokes auteur filmmaking in a whirlwind of drama, mystery and intrigue that makes up a stunning film that ranks among the best Australian flicks released in recent years.

Purcell had already adapted the story in 2016 and wrote on the subject in 2019, but this chapter of the story really soars under the direction, writing and acting of Purcell herself who plays Molly, the wife of a drover who cares for her four children in the outback.

Lawson’s tale sought to provide insight into the life of a woman in the outback and here Purcell goes one further in this brutal reimagining. Starting with the arrival of new sergeant Nate (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), Molly’s life begins to unravel as she ends up fighting a range of other men who descend upon her.

That is until Yadaka (Rob Collins), an Aboriginal man on the run stumbles upon the family. Initially hesitant of him, they begin to bond as Yadaka becomes a surrogate father for Molly’s children in their father’s absence. This cross cultural exploration is brilliant and brings the ugly racial politics of colonial Australia to the fore for viewers.

Ultimately secrets are revealed and allow for interrogation of the reality of life during Lawson’s period. Similar to The Nightingale, what the film becomes is a violent and brutal storytelling of a group of people and time that were not kind.

Purcell’s directing is arresting and the film moves from scene to scene with ease. The scenery is stunning and all the actors bring their characters to life regardless of their screen time. The ending may lean into too much of a feminist lens for some viewers, but Purcell’s delicate balance of storytelling along the way makes it worthy of its conclusion.

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