Review: ‘The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson’ Is a Powerful Australian Revenge Tale [SXSW Online 2021]


The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson reimagines the acclaimed play of Leah Purcell and classic short story of Henry Lawson. A moving Australian revenge tale and a critical Western, the film presents a powerful look at Australian history and a universal story of how far a mother will go to protect her children.

In 1893, on an isolated property, a heavily pregnant woman named Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell) and her children struggle to survive the harsh Australian landscape; her husband is gone, droving sheep in the high country. Molly then finds herself confronted by a shackled Aboriginal fugitive named Yadaka (Rob Collins). As an unlikely bond begins to form between them, secrets unravel about her true identity. Meanwhile, realizing Molly’s husband is missing, new town lawman Nate Clintoff becomes suspicious and sends his constable to investigate. The deadly encounter between Molly, Yadaka and the constable results in a tragic chain of events with Molly becoming a symbol of feminism and anti-racism.

Purcell makes her feature directorial debut while also leading the cast as Molly Johnson, delivering an emotional and powerful performance that draws us in from their first moments on screen. As a fair skinned Aboriginal woman herself, Purcell brings a raw look at the facts of the past, removing the often white washed lens through which history is viewed. As Molly’s journey unfolds it’s clear that she’s haunted by a past event through small flashbacks that recur in moments of intense stress. Purcell infuses Molly with a steadfast resiliency that shines throughout the film. Even in the toughest moments, Molly fights for her children no matter what it takes to keep them safe. Her strength is unparalleled first when she is faced with the appearance of an Aboriginal fugitive and again as she faces losses, a huge revelation about her true identity, and the consequences of that information in the nearby small town of Everton.

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Collins performance as Yadaka is both heartbreaking and compelling as we learn more about his backstory and the reason he’s wanted. Yadaka is a prime example of the way people saw only skin color when it came to crime and his own story demonstrates the harsh reality of what really happened for native people during colonization. His respect for Molly is palpable as he offers to help with various tasks in exchange for food and aid. Collins wins our hearts over quickly in his portrayal, making the shocking final moments of the movie all the more poignant. Even Molly’s young son Danny, just 12 years old, serves as a reminder of how harsh the world can be and how quickly children must grow up when there is a constant struggle for survival. Beautiful shots of the breathtaking Australian landscape serve as a constant reminder of Molly and her children’s isolation and the struggles they face.

Molly’s story is told alongside the events in Everton as the new lawman, Nate (Sam Reid), attempts to bring some semblance of law and order to the wild town. As Nate arrives, there is a string of murders he is tasked to solve while also trying to win over the locals, and look out for Molly whom he and his wife, Louisa (Jesseca De Gouw), befriended on their way into Everton. He struggles to reconcile his idea of law with what he finds in the Australian town, and begins an investigation into Molly’s missing husband that leads to drastic consequences for many. Louisa too finds a purpose in town writing for the local paper on a topic that resonates closely with Molly’s story though she doesn’t know it. Reid and De Gouw are captivating in their portrayals as Nate and Louisa who find themselves disagreeing on the law Nate is sworn to uphold.

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Molly’s story is a stark examination of the prejudices of the past, a topic that echoes through time to the still persistent issues of today. Masterfully written, directed, and acted, The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is a story for the ages. No one will walk away from this film without taking a piece of Molly into their hearts and remembering her story long after the film has ended.

Check out the rest of our SXSW Online 2021 coverage here!

Brianna works full time in the publishing industry, passionately building books to bring to the masses. Her first fandom was Harry Potter, which she joined at age 11. Her love for books took her abroad to earn her Masters Degree at University College London, after which she lived in New York City, and now resides in Austin. She loves all things fandom including Supernatural, Doctor Who, and more. Ever the introvert, she can usually be found reading, playing with her dog, listening to music and practicing yoga. Brianna joined the Nerds and Beyond staff in 2018 where she unites her love for all things "nerd" with her passion for writing. Find her on Twitter here: @bookbag09

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