The Western is deeply underrated as a genre and, with each passing year, Westerns become less frequent and even less appreciated. It’s understandable, as the genre is populated with problematic icons and represents moments in history that are difficult to relate to and sympathize with. That’s what makes films like THE DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON so vital to the genre.
THE DROVER’S WIFE represents the kind of Western that illustrates something beyond our John Wayne expectations. Westerns don’t have to belong to men – more pointedly, they don’t have to belong to white men. The film illustrates the strength and grit of women, women of color, that struggled to conquer the same untamed landscapes as “traditional” Western heroes and did it while facing prejudices and challenges from their fellow man. These stories of man versus nature and the rugged individual conquering the odds gain refreshed perspective and moving depth when shown through the eyes of a woman.
THE DROVER’S WIFE THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON is a reimagining of Leah Purcell’s acclaimed play and 2019 debut novel and the classic short story by Henry Lawson. Purcell – writer, director, and star of both the play and the film – looks to her own experiences as a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman to bring new light to the experiences of Aboriginals and their stories in Australian history.
In THE DROVER’S WIFE, Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell) is heavily pregnant and alone with her children in the harsh Australian landscape. Her husband is gone, local authorities have become suspicious of his absence, and a shackled fugitive has appeared on her doorstep. As Molly struggles to survive and protect her children, she must unravel secrets about her identity and her place in the world as a woman. A deadly encounter between Molly, the fugitive she befriends, and a constable results in a chain of events that will forever change her life and the lives of her children.
As I mentioned at the outset, stories of race and gender represent the future of the Western. Given the history of the genre, there are many stories of survival and perseverance that have yet to be told. Those gaps in the history of the era are in desperate need of filling. Now more than ever, there is a need for diverse stories and an appreciation for the hardships of people that history tried to forget.
It is especially important to tell these stories in a way that honors the roots of the Western genre. There are some in our culture that make the argument that the Western has no place in modern storytelling and that, in the interest of diversity, the genre should be laid to rest. THE DROVER’S WIFE offers compelling evidence to the contrary. The Western has a future. The Western has value. The Western has infinite possibilities to tell new and exciting stories that can show us so much. THE DROVER’S WIFE is planted firmly in this conversation and is driven by such compelling and grounded performances that it is impossible to ignore.
For all of the film’s strengths, it could have benefitted from a clearer focus. When watching the film, it is immediately apparent that it has been adapted from the long-form intimacy of the stage. This is a strength when it comes to character opportunities and great writing, but a detriment to pacing. Distinct acts and arcs from the stage do not translate as well to the smooth narrative structure of a film. It is a small distinction that makes a big difference when sitting for the film.
THE DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON is an honest and gritty appraisal of the darker moments of Australian history, uplifted by a remarkable heroine. The hallmarks of the traditional Western are beautifully preserved but elevated to something greater through a bold exploration of gender, race, and the desire for freedom. A stellar film.
THE DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON premiered on Thursday, March 18 as part of the Narrative Spotlight at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.