Henry Lawson’s original short story, “The Drover’s Wife,” written in 1892, clearly had an impact on Leah Purcell growing up. It is a tale of a lone woman versus nature, the story of a wife alone with her children in the Australian outback while she waits for her husband to return. First adapting the story into a successful stage play, then publishing a book of the same title, Purcell has injected her own perspective into the classic short story. Now, having written, directed, and starred in the film adaptation, Purcell has established herself as an important voice in Australian filmmaking and storytelling in general.
Set in the wide-open outback of 1893 Australia, The Drover’s Wife exists in the harsh environment both naturally and socially. Molly Johnson (Purcell) is a mother of four who lives in an isolated home far from town, awaiting the return of her drover husband. While trying to face off the threats of the landscape, an Indigenous man named Yadaka (Rob Collins) appears on her land in shackles. Instead of turning him into the authorities, Molly takes him in as they both bond over their attempts at survival. Coinciding with these events is the town’s search for both Molly’s husband and Yadaka, who is wanted for murder. As suspicions rise within all the involved parties, the film explores issues of identity, race, and feminism.
Purcell is an Aboriginal woman herself, and she uses her experiences to elevate Lawson’s original short story into something entirely new. Her understanding of Indigenous history is what makes for the strongest parts of the film. The conversations between her and Yadaka as they continue to bond with each other, as well as uncover difficult secrets from the past, lend insight into Indigenous peoples’ experiences. She combines this with a female perspective as well, creating even more layers to the hardened character of Molly Johnson.
The film’s faults are mostly due to its uneven pacing. We spend large chunks of time with Molly on her homestead, only to be yanked out back to town, where the new lawman Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) grapple with their environment. Although their storylines are related to the main conflict, it takes some time before this comes together, resulting in a disjointed feeling between scenes. Despite this, the slow-burn nature of the film allows time to breathe as well as utilize the landscape to intensify the atmosphere.
Leah Purcell already has a mountain of work behind her, but it is clear this story was hers to tell, and she does so with brave confidence in what she is portraying. The Drover’s Wife is a brutal retelling of history. It houses some powerful moments of identity and understanding, showcasing Purcell’s talent at direction. Although it stumbles in some places, the overall effect is strongly felt, especially as the film reaches its final act.