Matter of wife and death in The Legend of Molly Johnson

Leah Purcell stars in her adaptation of a short story about a murder investigation set in the Australian outback

Thursday, 12th May — By Dan Carrier

Leah Purcell in The Drover's Wife

Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife

Directed by Leah Purcell
Certificate: 12a

THIS adaptation of a short story written in the 1890s looks and feels terrific, and includes a stand-out role by writer, director and lead actor Leah Purcell.

It tells the story of Molly Johnson, the wife of a sheep drover living in the middle of nowhere in New South Wales.

She tends to her home and children while her husband is away with the flocks. Molly is a hard-working and fierce matriarch who keeps her shack and four children as tidy and in line as she can.

One day, after we are introduced to the type of thing she gets up to each day when she slays a wild bullock with a shot to the head, the homestead is visited by a police officer and his wife on their way to a posting at Everton, the closest town.

Something feels amiss. We are told this through Molly’s behaviour, the confusing flashbacks she suffers, and the eerie atmosphere created by making the size of the Outback ominously clear – there is no help to call on around the corner.

The newly arrived police officer Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) steps straight into a murder investigation and manhunt.

Yadaka (Rob Collins) is accused of the crimes and the drunken townsmen are recruited to help track him down.

When Yadaka is forced to seek Molly’s help as he heads into the bush, Molly’s story emerges from the shadows with devastating consequences.

Perhaps the film stumbles because of its big themes. Finding the right characters as vehicles to make a point enjoys varied success. Molly, played by the director, is an absolute force – it’s a stunning performance.

But the character of Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) as the feminist wife of Nate is too sketchily drawn to make the impact expected of her. We learn she is a writer, and is setting up a newspaper for the scattered homesteads. In it, she tackles abuse. As a side plot, it doesn’t carry the impact hoped for.

But otherwise this film enjoys brilliant performances from the leads, and the contrast between the huge and beautiful vistas of the countryside and the God-fearing, Bible-bashing stuffy Victorian parlours of a town plonked down in the middle of nowhere is used as a powerful symbol against the impact of man on a natural environment.

It is as if the man-made homes, and the man-made Bible, represent a sullying of the earth, a metaphor for the abusive behaviour towards women.

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