by Jordan King
To call The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson a passion project for Indigenous Australian multi-hyphenate Leah Purcell would be an understatement. Having been struck by the stoic protagonist of Henry Lawson’s late-19th century short story The Drover’s Wife, an unnamed mother defending her children from a predatory snake whilst her ‘careless’ husband droves sheep, Purcell liberated her from Lawson’s work, expanding her narrative to fill an acclaimed stage-play as well as a best-selling novel. Mining the short story’s potential as a revisionist Western, giving Lawson’s ‘determined-looking woman’ the name Molly Johnson, reclaiming her as a heroine holding her own in a society mired in misogyny and racism, a cinematic adaptation was inevitable. For the most part, Purcell’s screen adaptation of her own prior works is a satisfying if not somewhat dry piece of cinema.
In Purcell’s film, she plays the titular role. With a fixed glare and a face as unforgiving as her outback home, which DoP Mark Wareham captures spectacularly in wide-angled lenses and breathtaking timelapses, Molly Johnson stands outside her porch with a gun always ready to meet the level of her eye. Early flashbacks show shadowy figures have come Molly and her family’s way before, and her bruised and bloodied visage attests that she knows all too well the importance of vigilance and self-protection. In her present, the camera embodies Molly’s PTSD, stalking her in harsh zooms and exposing a fragility that lays beneath her powerful external presentation.
With her husband absent, Johnson’s priority is her four children – it is no coincidence that on each occasion in Purcell’s film where Molly’s life is endangered, her only plea is not for herself, nor her husband, but for them. With a fifth child on the way as well as one cruelly lost long ago, the drover’s wife tends to her own flock and guards their home with quiet conviction. After felling a bullock, the smell of the cooking spoils attracts the attention of Everton-bound Sargeant Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife, women’s rights advocate Louisa (Jessica De Gouw). Whilst Molly Johnson regales the couple with glowing reminiscences of the joy her husband Joe’s homecomings bring, her words ring with a rehearsed nature that will later come under scrutiny as the patriarch’s absence grows suspicious. In these early scenes, fantastic young newcomer Malachi Dower-Roberts impresses as eldest son Danny, whose jittery yet older-than-his-years nature suggests dangers have not always come from outside the familial home.
Whilst Sgt. Clintoff and his suddenly unwell wife arrive in the rumour rife and rowdy Everton with Molly Johnson’s kids as their guides, Molly finds herself going into labour just as escaped Aborigène fugitive Yakada (Rob Martin) bursts onto the scene looking for food. Taking pity on the prisoner, who testifies that his only crime is ‘existing whilst Black’ – one of several awkwardly on-the-nose authorial inserts in a narrative with strong enough imagery to avoid cliché, Molly frees Yakada, who in turn provides solace as another Johnson child sadly passes.
With Yakada proving popular with impressionable Danny, providing fatherly teachings and wisdom whilst helping Molly with the house as well as her complex relationship with her Indigenous roots and adulterous husband, Sgt. Clintoff’s investigations into a bloody set of killings and a wanted man matching Yakada’s profile set this cast of troubled characters on a collision course destined to end in tragedy.
On a technical level, Purcell’s directorial debut is an impressive bit of work. Wareham evokes the devastating beauty of the film’s outback setting with all the grandeur and grit of the golden age of Westerns, doing so whilst slotting The Drover’s Wife in an emerging Australian Western New Wave alongside the likes of The True History of the Kelly Gang and The Nightingale. Likewise, multi-instrumentalist experimental composer Salliana Seven Campbell contributes a phenomenal score, using the strings of electric and acoustics guitars as well as fiddles and violins to cut through the tedium of the film’s more languorous stretches. During a heated fireside confrontation, the use of effects pedals sublimely evokes an internal apocalypse occurring within Molly Johnson, distorting reality as Johnson’s world threatens to collapse.
Performance-wise Purcell herself, as well as the previously highlighted Dower-Roberts, work wonders. Having bared her soul on stage already as Molly Johnson night-in, night-out, and having unlocked her innermost thoughts with her novel, Purcell portrays the unrivalled voracity of a mother’s love in a way that helps create a feminist Western heroine deserving of the legendary status connoted by the film’s title. In flash-forwards which show a grown Danny enacting his mother’s story, there is no doubt that its mythic quality has been well-founded in Purcell’s work behind and before the camera. Martin is also strong as Yakada, carrying a shackled masculinity that unlocks as he relearns what it is to live somewhat free.
Unfortunately however, the film is unwieldy and cumbersome for long stretches. Subplots involving the Sargeant’s wife are picked up and dropped and then picked up again sloppily, whilst the tangled up racial history of Molly and her family is explored in novelistic fashion, making for dry viewing. Meanwhile, the townsfolk of Everton are sketched in so thinly that they barely provide more than an extension of the film’s scenery. Whilst this may well have been intentional, keeping viewers focused on the central characters of Purcell’s film, we spend far too much time in Everton (a detracting element in and of itself) for these people to exist so two-dimensionally. It doesn’t help that Sam Reid’s performance as the man holding court in Everton ironically lacks conviction – his turn from personable policeman to a man who unironically states ‘This land needs law, not a moral compass’ is bizarre. The aforementioned authorial intrusions are also just a little jarring. Lines such as ‘too many whites, too many guns’ over-literalise subtexts that didn’t need blunt dialogic acknowledgments to place the film within a modern context.
Overall, The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson has too much merit to dismiss it based on flaws that are to be found in many a filmmakers’ first foray into feature cinema, and finishing as it does on such an emotional sucker-punch that reminds us of the sacrifice it takes to cement a legend, Purcell’s work here does much to ensure that Molly Johnson’s legend will endure.
The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson played as part of the SXSW Film Festival