The Drover's Wife: the Legend of Molly Johnson (MA15+, 109 minutes)
In Henry Lawson's 1892 short story The Drover's Wife, the title character had a hard, often lonely life with constant hard work. A snake was the biggest threat encountered in the action of the story, but flood, illness and other problems are also mentioned.
While nature remains dangerous in co-producer-writer-director-star Leah Purcell's adaptation, it's people who pose the greatest menace - even, or perhaps especially, the "civilised" ones.
"Adaptation" is perhaps a stretch: Lawson's brief, spare slice of life has been used by Purcell as a jumping-off point for a dark, revisionist look at life for a woman in the Australian bush in the early 20th century.
While it's occasionally a bit heavy-handed and anachronistic in feeling, the film is well made and acted, and a compelling, if downbeat, experience.
The story and its possibilities are obviously close to Purcell's heart: she had previously also adapted it into a play and a novel.
Some fleeting moments in the story have become full-blown incidents, including a bullock that menaces the family, but Purcell has other concerns.
As the story begins, Molly Johnson (Purcell) has four children and is heavily pregnant with a fifth. She's also buried four others. Her husband Joe may of necessity be away on frequent, long absences - he's not there now - but we know one way they make up for lost time when he's home.
A couple come to the family's tiny hut and, unfazed by Molly's everpresent gun and steely attitude, beg for a meal. Sergeant Nate Klintoff (Sam Reid), a wounded Boer War veteran, has come to bring law to the nearby town of Everton and his English wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) wants to write about women's rights in its magazine.
Molly thaws enough to feed them and it seems that perhaps she's made some friends.
Turning up afterwards is the wounded Yadaka (Rob Collins), an Indigenous fugitive from the law. While Molly is, once again, wary, she gives the mission-educated man help and food and lets him stay. He does jobs around the place and provides company and conversation as well as being a father figure of sorts to her eldest son (the other children have been sent off to trade meat for other supplies).
Not that things are idyllic - far from it, as she loses yet another baby.
But that is just one of the hardships and horrors Molly will face in a harsh world that's stacked against women like her.
Purcell, a multitalented, award-winning Indigenous woman, makes an impressive feature-film directorial debut here. Her acting is excellent, conveying the world-weariness, pragmatism, and humanity of Molly.
She's also drawn excellent performances from her cast, with familiar faces including Bruce Spence and Nicholas Hope in supporting roles - as well as former Canberran Ed Wightman.
The film conveys a real sense of alienation and brooding menace - with help from Salliana Seven Campbell's score and Mark Wareham's cinematography. Wareham, a film and TV veteran, is yet another in the long line of brilliant Australian cinematographers and his imagery makes the landscapes starkly beautiful as well as unsettling.
It's the script that occasionally lets things down: some characters are a little too broadly drawn or underdeveloped and the scenes in the town feel too sketchy to provide as effective a counterpoint to Molly's hardscrabble life and actions as they might have. Some of the dialogue and issues reflect the present a bit too overtly.
But this is still an intelligent, vivid, sometimes violent look at a past that still echoes today.
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