There have been difficult births portrayed on screen before and then there is what happens in “The Drover’s Wife” where Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell) must deal with the impossible as soon as her water breaks, coming across a stranger (Rob Collins) on her property, face down with an axe not far from his reach when the contractions start to hit. Strange as it may seem, this part doesn’t faze Molly all that much, having had to protect herself and her four children already for the past three months as her husband has been away leading sheep down from the high country in 1890s Australia. She’s more than held her own, but it is when the man she comes to know as Yadaka springs to life and she recognizes he’s the only one around to help lead her through her labor that the man, who by every appearance, looks like he could kill her — or at least someone — is asked to bring a new life into the world.
Trades that may seem uncomfortable on the surface is a significant part of the currency in “The Drover’s Wife,” which unusually lacks for a typical villain yet finds a more insidious evil all over the bush as ingrained racism and misogyny is hard to shake, even as early work on a township has commenced nearby by Molly’s home. That progress has led to the arrival of Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica de Gouw) after a nine-and-a-half week voyage from London to Melbourne, and starving after the long trek, find themselves on the same end of a rifle as Yadaka does when they stumble onto Molly’s property looking for food. Molly obliges with the meat they need when survival hasn’t only meant being handy with a firearm, able to leave her kids in their care as her pregnancy is taking its toll, yet without anyone knowing what the future holds, they’ll inevitably be at odds with each other when Sergeant Klintoff is assigned to look into the murder of the township’s leading benefactor’s wife with Yadaka, a chief suspect due to his indigenous roots.
There’s no doubt it’s the right thing for Molly to tell her eldest Danny to bring back “rice, flour, sugar, tea…and bullets,” but for all the toughness that Molly leads with, it’s in those rare moments she’s able to show a little tenderness that she’s able to thrive, which could be said also for her off-screen counterpart Purcell, who adapts her play of the same name and gives herself quite the juicy role to play as the frontier woman who finds her own prejudices upended by seeing the benefits of the bargains she makes. In spite of an overly aggressive score, the western avoids being heavy-handed as it effectively pushes back against the predominant man- of-action narrative that left so many others who shared the same experience in the dust, instead finding those often relegated to the role of bystanders navigating the same terrain rising to the challenge in ways that at this point are frankly more intriguing.