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The Drover’s Wife review – effective and stirring revisionist western

Leah Purcell writes, directs and stars in this refreshingly feminist and well acted revenge tale, set in colonial Australia

At the centre of The Drover’s Wife are two recurrent settings; the growing outpost town of Everton, in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, Australia; and the threadbare home of Molly Johnson and her family, some way away on the periphery. It’s a simple pairing of images, yet one whose thematic power grows as the film reveals itself.

Since its earliest days, the western has predicated itself on the divide between “civilisation” and “the wild,: between towns and farmsteads, between the domestic and the untamed. These simple divisions have provided much dramatic heft, whether in the service of the many old Hollywood westerns that now often reek of dated ideals, or in today’s modern versions, with said themes updated. The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (to give it its full name) sits firmly in the latter camp – revisionist, with star, director and writer Leah Purcell delivering a staunchly feminist, post-colonial and First Nations take on the Australian western.

Here we follow the titular character Molly who, heavily pregnant and on her own after the disappearance of her husband, has to contend with lurking vigilantes and overzealous law enforcement on her farmstead. What appears to be an initial existential threat – the tired First Nations fugitive Yadaka (Rob Collins), who appears suddenly one day – turns out to become a surrogate father figure for her children and a bearer of truths. Crucial to the plot is Molly’s position in comparison to the town – her peripheral state is reflected both in the way the state literally cannot access her land readily, and in the way that decisions made in town can take days to affect her.

It all draws towards a tale of revenge that recalls fellow Aussie director’s Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, a dark and traumatic rape-revenge western set in Tanzania. Whilst both films deal with the slow genocide of First Nations Australians and mistreatment of women in the 19th century bush, The Drover’s Wife does struggle in comparison given its keenness to the state the obvious in its narrative – there is little subtext. This also has the effect of reducing the characters and making them simpler: supporting characters are either nefarious colonialists, or gentle and good souls. It results in the film ultimately being just a little too clean, as if unwilling to allow chaos in the door.

But there are plenty of positives. Adapted from a stage play, also by Purcell (itself originating from a 1892 short story by Henry Lawson), one can see the joins here at times (and that’s not a criticism). Given the breadth of a cinema screen and an evocative score by Salliana Seven Campbell, there is a truly majestic feel to the film, aided by its stage-like intimacy. There’s real complexity to Purcell’s performance, and genuine warmth in Collins’ – the two have an uneasy but fully believable chemistry that’s central to the film’s best scenes. An effective and stirring revisionist western, with a refreshing anti-colonial perspective.

The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is released in UK cinemas on 13 May.

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