The alternative film review

Malcolm Lewis on two hidden gems of British cinema.

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

directed and written by Leah Purcell

109 minutes

★★★★✩

Leah Purcell has based her film on an outback tale by Henry Lawson, who’s often billed as Australia’s greatest short story writer. His is a simple story about an unnamed woman protecting her children from a deadly snake lurking somewhere under their ill-fitting floorboards. In her version, Purcell is almightily powerful as the woman to whom she’s now given a name, Molly Johnson, and a wider life and reality. She’s the vital centre of an anti-Western with a driving narrative, an abiding sense of physical threat, and huge landscapes with a lethal, growing colonial presence.

Molly’s husband, a sheep drover who’s been away for months, beats her – and she has the marks to show for it. But she’s an unyielding defender of herself and her kids. When anyone approaches their homestead she’s there with a rifle, and in an early scene shoots a stray bullock and feeds the whole family. It’s when she lets down her guard, and doesn’t see off a neck-shackled aboriginal fugitive, that her life, and that of her children, changes.

This central relationship is the beating heart of the film. Molly starts to trust people, to learn about who she is, about her family history. But, of course, it doesn’t end well. There are always the people passing, drawn by the township growing nearby. On occasion, their scenes are too hurried, too summary: not least the English woman’s arrival undercutting the film’s climax, which should have been devastating. Yet this is a potent, shattering narrative – of colonial arrogance, racism, misogyny and persecution. And what shines out is the humanity, strength and solidarity of Australia’s original peoples. 

The Wall of Shadows

directed and co-written by Eliza Kubarska

94 minutes

★★★★✩

Nepal’s mountains attract tourists, and each year many hundreds of them reach the summit of the most famous: Everest. Their Sherpa guides and porters call it Chomolungma, meaning Goddess Mother of the Earth. They depend on it for their livelihood, and Ngada Sherpa has climbed it 10 or 11 times. He’s not climbed Kumbhakarna, though, the ‘mountain with shoulders’. No one has. To the Sherpas, it’s not just revered, like Chomolungma, but a sanctuary. It’s beyond access. But in 2019, Marcin, a Polish climber, and Dmitry and Sergey, two Russians, aim to make the first ascent of its east face, ‘The Wall of Shadows’. An agency offers Ngada the key role as their guide.

Although once a climber herself, Kubarska has not made a film about climbing, as the two Russians, very late on, suddenly realize. We learn almost nothing about them, locked as they are in themselves and their conquest. The focus is on Ngada and his family. He is highly skilled and competent, but is aware of the extreme danger and isn’t mono-maniacal. Jomdoe, his partner, is as concerned about the spiritual consequences of transgression. She burns incense, purifying because of its reach, its ability to penetrate space. We see their son, Dawa Tenzin Sherpa, standing in smoke from a fire he’s lit in the woods. Dawa’s a bright, athletic teenager, who could become a guide like his father, but wants to be a doctor. It’s beyond the family financially – unless Ngada joins the climbers.

This is a documentary with stunning and precipitous landscapes, but memorable for its portrait of gentle, unassuming people caught between two worlds.