Nearly 130 years since its original publishing, Henry Lawson’s short story “The Drover’s Wife” is more popular than the Aussie writer could have ever dreamed. Mostly, that’s thanks to the tireless efforts and creative obsession of filmmaker, playwright, author, and actress Leah Purcell. Over the course of the past five years, Purcell has made Lawson’s work — originally, an Outback-set story about the eponymous wife of a drover, who drives out a snake that threatens her children while her husband is (again) away at work — into her own, complete with a play, a novel, and now a film version dedicated to her reimagining of the tale.
Much like the star of Lawson and Purcell’s twinning but distinct works — Lawson never gave her a name, Purcell dubbed her “Molly Johnson” — Purcell’s adaptations are all about carving out a fresh space for women in a story world dominated by men. But while Purcell’s other spins on the tale, like the lauded play (which earned awards ranging from the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting and the Book of the Year at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards) and the book, reorient the tale into a feminist masterwork, Purcell’s film version lacks both the vigor and the emotion of her previous adaptations.
Through her various incarnations of the story, Purcell has crafted a rich new text that can lend itself to the more blunt concepts that punctuate “The Drover’s Wife,” but there’s a fine line between blunt and bludgeoning, and it’s one that’s fully erased by the film’s end. While Lawson’s relatively slim story centered on a snake threatening his protagonist and her family, Purcell’s version blows up the symbolism into the extremely literal. Along the way, she dips into tough questions about gender, race, and class. While the late nineteenth century setting is conducive to even these seemingly contemporary issues (they are, of course, as fraught now as they were then), Purcell’s inclination to blow the film up into something oddly obvious rankles.
There’s no snake tucked under Molly’s (played by Purcell) house: instead, Purcell’s versions reimagine the danger to come in the form of an Aboriginal man (Rob Collins), a wanted criminal fleeing across the bush and straight onto the Johnson’s hardscrabble farm. But Yadaka is hardly the only thing to fear, and while Purcell’s script cleverly unspools certain aspects of Molly’s life (like the true nature of her husband), other important elements are delivered as if someone was, well, reading a book to the audience. Dreamy sequences, others that take place far away from the family farm, and a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards bulk up the running time, but little of its actual emotional heft.
While the period details and Purcell’s roving interest in the various side characters that populate the story prove diverting, the most compelling observations always center on Molly. And there’s no question Purcell knows her character inside and out: Molly is tough as nails but not cold, a woman whose strength doesn’t obscure her deep love for her children. And while some — like the British interlopers Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) and his missus Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), who meet the Johnson clan while on their way to a distant outpost and a potential new life of adventure — might mistake her vigilance as something to calm, Molly knows never to let up.
Of course, that will have to be upended as the film drags on. While Purcell’s play packed an immediate, immersive punch — even looking at stills from the stage production is exciting — and her novel endeavored to take readers deep into Molly’s own psyche, the film can’t thread the needle between those two modes of storytelling. The film isn’t as explosive as the play, and it’s not as emotional as the book; instead, it occupies an uneasy middle ground between the two. Knowing that Purcell is capable of teasing more out of the material makes that revelation all the more disheartening. If even Purcell can’t make this work as a film, could anyone?
By the film’s meandering final act, a strange combination of shifting perspectives and wild secrets finally told, all punctuated by an ending that undercuts its own emotion with out-of-place histrionics, “The Drover’s Wife” has forgotten many of its strengths. Purcell, as star, stays resolute to the last, but as filmmaker, her sharp ideas are dulled into something that barely leaves a mark.
“The Drover’s Wife” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.