Leah Purcell’s fascination with The Drover’s Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson goes all the way back to her childhood, when her mother read her Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story, a memory that re-surfaced when she started writing her own version of the story. What turned out to be an award winning play came first, then a novel and now the film version, written and directed by Purcell who also takes the title role, arrives on our screens. It’s a personal literary journey with greater significance, one that redresses the story’s balance and gives the wife of the title a powerful voice of her own.
In the Australia of the 1890s, the heavily pregnant Molly Johnson (Purcell) is looking after her children on their remote home while her drover husband is away working. It’s a relentlessly harsh life and the arrival of fugitive Aboriginal, Yadaka (Rob Collins), appears to be another threat. What Molly doesn’t know is that he’s on the run, wanted for murder and with the new Sergeant, Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) on his tail, it’s only a matter of time before he’s tracked down. When one of his troopers arrives on Molly’s doorstep, it sets off a train of violent and, ultimately, tragic events.
In what is the first Australian feature with an indigenous woman writing, directing and taking the lead role, Purcell takes aim and fires right at the heart of Australian racism and its treatment of the Aboriginal population, not just at the time but right up to the present day. Her revisionist western comes very much from the female perspective – she added to the original short story by including stories from her own upbringing – leaving us in no doubt that life at the time was harsh, but for somebody who was both black and female, the world was brutal, repressive and racist. And it’s all set against a beautiful but equally unforgiving landscape, one of snow wrapped mountains, gnarled yet elegantly twisted eucalyptus trees and searing blue skies. The parallels with the present day are visible and audible.
Yet it’s a story about love, protection and, most of all, family. Molly’s number one priority, despite all her physical and emotional pain – the aftermath of her baby’s birth takes its toll and we’re never allowed to forget it – are her children. Under threat, they’re her first thought: she pleads for them, never seeking to protect herself, immediately making us wonder what we’d do in the same circumstances. But there’s a secondary question lingering in the wings: just how far have we really come in just over a century? And is it really as far as we think? At the centre of it all as we try to work out our answers is Purcell’s dignified, strong yet vulnerable Molly, whose weary face and sad eyes speak volumes. It’s a powerful piece of acting, one that keeps a firm hold on your sympathies and drives the film with determination.
While it’s not without its flaws – the characters of Clintoff and his wife seem under-developed by comparison and fit uncomfortably in the story – it’s also a solid directing debut from Purcell, one that calls to mind Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, both in its setting and themes. But The Drover’s Wife relies on our imagination for its toughest moments, instead of being ruthlessly explicit, and that subtlety strengthens its impact. A fearless film about a world ruled through fear.
Drama | Cert: 15 | UK cinemas from 13 May 2022 | Modern Films | Dir. Leah Purcell | Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid, Jessica De Gouw, Harry Greenwood.