Offering an interesting look at sociopolitical dynamics impacting Australia during the era when the island nation was used by the British empire as a penal colony, Adam’s Woman tells the eventful story of a convict offered land and a dowry in exchange for marrying a “fallen” woman. Extrapolated from historical events but heavily fictionalized, the picture depicts a humanistic British nobleman, Sir Philip MacDonald (John Mills), serving as Australia’s governor. Through an experimental rehabilitation program, he offers property to hardy prisoners as a means of compelling them to abandon criminality. Not unimportantly, the program also serves the crown’s goal of colonizing remote areas. Adam Beecher (Beau Bridges) is an American serving a two-year term on assault charges, and his incarceration gets extended by seven years following an escape attempt. Sympathetic to Adam’s claim that he was innocent of the original crime, Sir Philip selects Adam for the dowry experiment, giving the inmate his pick of several jailed women. He chooses Bess (Jane Merrow), a willful convict from Ireland. They establish a homestead in a rugged valley, but conflict emerges with gangs of criminals seeking to exploit and terrorize the homesteaders.
Had Adam’s Woman been written with more care and sophistication, the picture would have been a valuable piece of historical fiction, using the dowry system to explore myriad aspects of this complicated chapter in Australia’s history. Alas, the filmmakers simultaneously attempt too little and too much. Characterizations are thin, and the politics are mostly reduced to easily digestible slogans. More problematically, the narrative has an epic sprawl despite a running time of just 115 minutes; to properly service all the subplots and themes on display, three hours would have been a more ideal duration. The picture bursts with provocative ideas, and the production values are generally excellent, but everything feels rushed and superficial. Regarding the performances, Merrow and costar Andrew Keir (who plays a merciful prison guard) are the standouts, melding grit with heart. Mills is as mannered as usual, though he speaks beautifully, and Bridges applies more blunt-force intensity than precision or skill. Adding to the movie’s ho-hum quality are the fruity folk songs on the soundtrack, such as the opening-credits number that overdramatically describes harsh sentences given to prisoners exiled from Britain to Australia.
Adam’s Woman: FUNKY