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Canberra Today 2°/5° | Sunday, May 22, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Five-star movie review / ‘The Drover’s Wife’

“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” (MA) *****

ADVANCE publicity for this Australian movie said that it was based on Henry Lawson’s short story “The Drover’s wife”. 

Which in a way it is. But not as a slavish dramatisation of the text that, many decades ago, I studied at high school. 

My best recollection of that story was the climactic revelation about the firewood which the Aboriginal had collected for the wife. “He had built the woodheap hollow”. How Leah Purcell’s film was going to deal with that was the worrying thought that engaged me as I approached it.

Instead, Purcell, who wrote, produced and directed the film and plays the title character, has given her audiences a masterpiece of just about every element of the filmmaker’s craft. 

The film looks wonderful, with virtuoso cinematography. Which is not to say that every scene is filled with colour. But illuminating a passage in the story by moonlight or starlight or candlelight or an open-air fire pit looks exactly like – moonlight, starlight, candlelight or a fire pit! You don’t see that passion for truth in too many movies. Bravo, cinematographer Mark Wareham. 

Verisimilitude does much to establish this Australian story set in the early 1890s. So does the screenplay’s view of 21st century issues in that period – indigenous people, women of any race, in a society dominated by white males. 

Raising her children alone while tending a farm in the Snowy Mountains, Molly finds herself paired with Aboriginal fugitive Yadaka (Rob Collins giving a subtle and convincing portrayal). The two engage in a furtive and subtle flirtation as tragedy gradually closes around them. 

Just-promoted police sergeant Klintoff, newly come into the district with his English bride (Sam Reid and Jessica De Gouw), follows the letter of the law. In time, he’ll regret that without swerving from his duty.

Playing Molly’s eldest son is one of two real-life brothers. I’ve not previously seen the Zammit-Harvey brothers so don’t know which is he. But he has a future in acting if he wants when he grows up.

So what’s the plot? The word for it is compelling. Or convincing. Or tragic. Or courageous. Or a homage to Lawson’s short story without following it. 

I’m not going to spoil your experience by trying to summarise it. I simply say, it doesn’t flinch from its depiction of issues.

I hope movie lovers will flock to see this film. It delivers powerful value. When naming the year’s best Aussie film next comes around, I reckon that it has to be in with a very good chance.

Regrettably, there is no nationwide plan to screen a TV-style interview with the principal actors screened at the cinema where I watched the film on its first Canberra day. Committed moviegoers tend to take pleasure from such unexpected goodies.

At Dendy and Palace Electric

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Dougal Macdonald

Dougal Macdonald

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