Powerhouse Leah Purcell revisits Australia’s macho white history in a saga of epochal proportions.

Reviews by Joyce Glasser The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (May 13, 2022) Certificate 15, 108 mins

Australia features this year’s Oscar-winning director Jane Campion, Oscar-winning actors Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, and miles of studios used in international blockbusters. But there is also a wealth of indigenous talent beneath the surface of Britain’s former penal colony, which has only just begun to explode. We’ve already had a strong taste of Kaytetye Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilahwhich won the Camera D’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, followed in 2017 by the even more ambitious and equally compelling revisionist Australian western, sweet country which won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Now there’s a new Indigenous powerhouse to be reckoned with in the directorial debut of playwright, novelist, actress, activist and screenwriter Leah Purcell. The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson. Purcell is a Goa-Gungarri-Wakka-Wakka-Murri woman from Queensland, and it’s not enough for her to give a voice to Indigenous writers and directors: that voice is uncompromisingly feminist.

Purcell takes Henry Lawson’s popular 1892 short story as a starting point, which she has already adapted for the stage. Although Lawson’s mother was a feminist, Purcell expands on the story and every character and reference in it, altering or reinterpreting the story almost beyond recognition. In Purcell’s hands, it becomes an indictment of racism, misogyny and a celebration of cultural identity.

If you’re breaking new ground in an overwhelmingly masculine, white, western culture, why not go all the way and be in the movie too? Suffice it to say, Purcell is so convincing that, if you didn’t know, you’d never believe you’re looking at the writer-director, rather than a bush farmer’s wife, as comfortable with a rifle on her hip as she is with a baby

While she explains that her husband, the drover Joe Johnson, has been out with his sheep for a long time, the heavily pregnant Molly guards the rickety log cabin on the outskirts of the up-and-coming community of Everton. There she lives a solitary and spartan existence with her four surviving children, the eldest being 12-year-old Danny (Malachi Dower-Robert), who is inevitably mature beyond his years.

No one is safe in the shack, and when a stray ox shows up and won’t leave, she shoots it and cooks the meat on an open pit outside as a treat for the children. But the arrival of two strangers, lured by the smell of meat, heralds a shift in which their solitude will be invaded by a steady stream of highly unwelcome visitors.

It takes a while for Molly to trust even the affable, handsome Sgt. Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid), who is limping from a Boer War wound, and his beautiful London-born bride, Louisa (Jessica De Gouw). Clintoff explains that they have come a long way and got lost through misfortune en route to a job enforcing the law of the Crown in lawless Everton.

Louisa, an aspiring writer and early feminist with an anachronistic interest in battered women, plans to start her own monthly journal for women in Everton. When Molly shows little interest in subscribing, we can sense an immediate cultural divide, one between the two women that narrows as the story progresses, but not as severely as you might think.

As Louisa, who has never been separated from Clintoff since they met, feels the distress of being pregnant and being separated from the drover for so long, Molly suddenly becomes lyrical, staring into the distant hills with a rare smile on her face. She describes a fairytale homecoming in poetic language that seems unnatural.

In Everton, Clintoff is surrounded by racist, self-serving pillars of the community and a creepy young cop (Benedict Hardie) who helps him learn the territory. Clintoff feels pressured to get to work to find the Aboriginal killer of a powerful businessman’s wife, or so he is told.

In the increasingly violent twist of this intricately staged saga, it just so happens that the prime suspect, who looks as guilty as a sin, is the next visitor to Molly’s cabin. In perhaps the most unexpected and amazing scene of the film, Molly is about to blow the man’s head off as she goes into labor and grasps the confused man’s outstretched hand….

After this traumatic experience, the stranger Yadaka (Rob Collins) hangs around out of compassion, but also out of selfishness. Molly expresses her gratitude by cutting the bonds around his neck with a hatchet, and while she gives him a deadline, Yadaka is still hanging around. The two strangers form a bond that proves stronger than Molly could have imagined; one that leads to the core of their cultural identity.

Nothing is as obvious as a sexual relationship, but something more profound as Yadaka’s stories about his Indigenous community and Molly’s lineage awaken in her a deep-rooted but still shocking connection to her roots.

Meanwhile, Clintoff, who has begun searching for Joe Johnson, and not just for Molly’s benefit, sends his constable to Molly’s as part of the investigation. He is outraged to find Yadaka there and Molly is unable to defend her new friend.
Their happy idyll is shattered by a chain of increasingly disturbing events that expose the townspeople’s hypocrisy and systematic racism, and the brutal treatment of women that Louisa hoped to combat.

Molly’s mystery and Louisa’s urban, progressive crusade against battered women is too schematic, and it’s hard to say what to make of Louisa’s pathetically inefficient activism, which doesn’t help Molly. And while the end may be inevitable, you might be wondering if frontier justice itself was that swift and medieval in circa 1893.

But Purcell and Collins are a refreshing pairing and will make sure you take care of them. And as a portrait of a single-minded woman willing to sacrifice herself for her children’s freedom, the film works on a visceral level that leaves you shaking with moral outrage.

Powerhouse Leah Purcell revisits Australia’s macho white history in a saga of epochal proportions.

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