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The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson

After reimagining Henry Lawson's short story for the stage and page, Leah Purcell brings her First Nations, feminist and anti-colonial take on the tale to cinemas.
By Sarah Ward
May 05, 2022
By Sarah Ward
May 05, 2022

Leah Purcell's resume isn't short on highlights — think: Black Comedy, Wentworth and Redfern Now, plus Lantana, Somersault and Last Cab to Darwin (to name just a few projects) — but the Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri actor, director and writer clearly has a passion project. In 2016, she adapted Henry Lawson's short story The Drover's Wife for the stage. In 2019, she moved it back to the page. Now, she brings it to the big screen via The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson. Only minutes into her searing feature filmmaking debut, why Purcell keeps needing to tell this 19th century-set tale is patently apparent. In her hands, it's a story of anger, power, prejudice and revenge, and also a portrait of a history that's treated both women and Indigenous Australians abhorrently. Aussie cinema hasn't shied away from the nation's problematic past in recent times (see also: Sweet Country, The Nightingale, The Furnace and High Ground); however, this is an unforgettably potent and piercing movie.

In a fiery performance that bristles with steeliness, Purcell plays the eponymous, gun-toting and heavily pregnant Molly. In the process, she gives flesh, blood and a name to a character who wasn't allowed the latter in Lawson's version. In this reimagining, Molly is a 19th-century Indigenous Australian woman left alone with her four children (and one on the way) on a remote Snowy Mountains property for lengthy stretches while her husband works — and that situation, including the reasons behind it and the ramifications from it, causes ripples that shape the course of the film. Two of the key questions that The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson asks couldn't be more obvious, but something doesn't have to be subtle to be potent and perceptive. Those queries: what impact does being marginalised twice over, as both a woman and a First Nations Australian, leave on the feature's protagonist? How has it forged her personality, shaped what she cares about and cemented what she's capable of?

It's during her spouse's latest absence that the film unfurls its story, not with a snake but rather strangers trotting Molly and her children's way. New sergeant Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid, The Newsreader) and his wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw, Operation Buffalo) decamp from England — both well-meaning, and the latter a journalist who even protests against domestic violence, but neither truly understands Molly's experience. Also darkening her door: her husband's pals (Dead Lucky's Anthony Cogin and Wakefield's Harry Greenwood), who make the male entitlement and privilege of the time brutally apparent. And, there's no shortage of other locals determined and downright eager to throw their might, morals and opinions around, be it the resident judge (Nicholas Hope, Moon Rock for Monday), the minister (Bruce Spence, The Dry) or his unwed sister (Maggie Dence, Frayed).

As Purcell impresses in her stare and stance first and foremost, Molly doesn't let her guard down around anyone. The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson has the parade of supporting characters to show why, and to illustrate the attitudes its namesake has been forced to stomach silently her entire life. She sports physical markers, too; from the outset of this moody and brooding film, there's no doubting that violence is a familiar and frequent part of Molly's existence. But Aboriginal fugitive Yadaka (Rob Collins, Firebite) is one of the few figures to venture in her direction and earn more than her ferocious gaze. He's on the run from murder charges, although he states his real crime bluntly: "existing while Black". Around the Johnson property, he strikes up a warm camaraderie with Molly's eldest boy, 12-year-old Danny (newcomer Malachi Dower-Roberts) — and, in another of the script's point-blank strokes, he's soon the closest thing to an ally his wary host has ever had beyond her children.

Fiercely revisionist meat-pie westerns have been having their moments of late — spanning not only the aforementioned stretch of flicks, but back to The Proposition — and it's plain to see why. The always-blistering The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson digs sharply into issues of race, gender and identity, looking backwards with modern eyes to lay bare the horrors that've lingered at Australia's core for too long. It's a silver-screen reckoning, as its predecessors have been as well. It's also as resonant and striking as this Aussies slice of the genre has ever managed. Westerns as a whole have never simply dramatised frontier and colonial times, of course, but pondered the threats, behaviours and ways of thinking that were emboldened and entrenched amid all that dry, dusty land. In that tradition — one that, overseas, includes Deadwood and Django Unchained, too — The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson keenly, shrewdly and forcefully draws cinematic blood.

Also simple to spot: the dedication that Purcell brings, on- as well as off-screen, to her unflinching examination of the country's past. It's there in every exacting frame, and obviously in her performance — which adds a new and instantly memorable Indigenous hero to the nation's screens. Purcell makes it impossible to look away from her film and its lead character, even while it's rarely easy to weather everything that Molly's been made to bear. Her scenes with Collins, intimate and heaving with shared woes as they are, crackle and spark with fury and pain. Both veterans of 2016–17 TV series Cleverman (Purcell as a director, Collins as a star), they gift The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson with portrayals that demand attention, and that never let the movie's First Nations, feminist and anti-colonial perspective waver in intensity.

The theatre version of The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson won a spate of accolades, the 2017 Helpmann Award for Best Play included, so that there's a stagey feel to Purcell's feature is similarly unsurprising. That's one of its few struggles, though. Cinematographer Mark Wareham (Jasper Jones) has been tasked with trying to thwart that sensation, and overtly — but his expressive camerawork still adds beauty and texture to the film, welcomely so. And, when The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson does resemble impassioned dialogue pitched to the back rows, something else pivotal becomes apparent. A story this fervent and bold should echo across multiple formats. It needs to feel as if it's shouting its ire as far and wide as possible, and that every attempt to do exactly that is bleeding together as well as spreading. The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson will get another chance and another medium to do just that, in fact, with a TV series already slated set to follow this commanding movie.

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