Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story The Drover’s Wife is a beloved classic from Australia’s pioneering past. But like most colonial literature, it marginalizes the people of the First Nations, generally depicted as scoundrels or savages. In her first narrative feature, Indigenous actor-filmmaker Leah Purcell reclaims the tale from an Aboriginal woman’s perspective, a tripartite process she began with a play and novel based on the same source material. An interrogation of Australia’s history of racial violence that also takes on gender, identity and domestic abuse against a backdrop right out of an archetypal high country Western, the engrossing thriller is admirably ambitious but choppy, at times eluding the director’s grasp.
Picked up for North America by Samuel Goldwyn Films ahead of its SXSW premiere, The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson (the awkward title specifically includes no colon) continues in the vein of recent historical Westerns from Australia like Sweet Country, True History of the Kelly Gang and The Furnace. As in those films, the expansive landscapes and immense skies — often shot in beautiful time-lapse cinematography — lend breadth and power to the drama, which was filmed in the Snowy Mountains region of southern New South Wales.
Big and bold, but uneven.
But Purcell’s screenplay, particularly considering this is her third retelling of the saga, could have used another pass or two to improve its cohesion and fluidity. The central relationship provides a strong core, focusing on a woman who has chosen to live outside a society that offers her no protection and the entry into her life of a story-keeper with information about her origins that isolates her even further. The muddled surrounding drama, however, is less effective.
Elements drawn from Aboriginal storytelling tradition, mythopoetic frontier folklore and classic Western vernacular all contribute to breathe an epic dimension into the material. But the sketchy secondary character outlines, clunky subplots and lurching transitions don’t quite pull everything together. On a scene by scene basis it’s compelling, but there’s a lumpy quality to the film, not helped by jarring anachronisms in the language and political themes. It pulls the viewer out of the story to hear a late 19th century Aboriginal character defining his crime as “Resisting whilst Black,” a pithy phrase that instantly evokes contemporary racial-profiling protests.
Molly Johnson (Purcell) lives in a rickety shanty isolated from the fledgling township of Everton, in which lawmen, starchy religious folk, prostitutes and rowdy livestock handlers co-exist without much mutual respect. While her husband Joe is away for long stretches at a time, herding sheep in the mountains, she strives to protect her four surviving children, with another on the way. The hardy frontierswoman shows her skill with a shotgun when she kills a wild bullock that wanders onto her property, an incident that becomes a favorite story to her 12-year-old eldest son Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts).
The smell of roasting beef draws hungry traveler Sgt. Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid), on his way to enforce the law of the Crown in Everton; and his London-bred wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), an aspiring writer who champions the rights of battered women in an undercooked thread. Molly feeds the couple and shares a romantic description of her feelings watching Joe return from the high country to the joyous welcome of his kids. But the veracity of that account will come into question as more about her absentee husband is revealed.
Nate barely settles into the job before he has a multiple murder case to solve, when the family of a local bigwig is found dead. Around the same time, an Aboriginal fugitive named Yadaka (Rob Collins) turns up at Molly’s just as she’s going into labor. He assists with the birth and shows compassion for her sorrows. She repays him by removing the metal shackle from around his neck and providing him with food and shelter.
As both writer and director, Purcell struggles to keep all the narrative plates spinning. Louisa’s life-threatening bout with a flu epidemic serves little purpose, while Nate seems to transform into an entirely different, tortured character as the murder investigation yields few clues. Questions about the racial purity of Molly’s offspring lead to a custody threat from the Everton clergyman and his sister (Oz screen vets Bruce Spence and Maggie Dence), which folds in the ignominious Australian historical chapter of the “Stolen Children.” But every time the attention veers to the English couple, or to the ersatz-Deadwood action in town, the film stalls.
The heart of the story is more robust, with a romance that smolders just on the delicate edge of ignition. Molly and Yadaka share stories, including his knowledge of her parentage, which shifts her sense of cultural identity. When Joe remains mysteriously missing, Nate sends his young constable (Benedict Hardie) out to Molly’s house to investigate. This triggers a fateful chain of events that exposes ugly secrets while claiming more lives and adding the brutality of sexual violence onto a plot already straining at the seams.
Purcell and the charismatic Collins give the standout performances as the two most satisfyingly developed characters; the director throws herself into the central role with fiery conviction and a countenance as brooding as the blanketing skies overhead.
On the craft side, she gets valuable support from the dramatic visuals of cinematographer Mark Wareham and the flavorful if overused score for strings and piano by Salliana Seven Campbell. Purcell deserves credit for the complexity of this multilayered story, but her directing experience has mainly been on stage and in episodic television, and the sweep for which she’s aiming remains out of her reach. Moments in which the spirit of Molly’s mother appears, her hair billowing in the wind like she’s a refugee from an ’80s Russell Mulcahy music video, are particularly ill-considered.
The radical reworking of Lawson’s title character as an Indigenous feminist hero in a harsh world of white men is a commendable idea. But fleshing out what appears to have been a more stylized, stripped-back theatrical adaptation diminishes its intensity.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production companies: Oombarra Productions, Bunya Productions
Distribution: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Cast: Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid, Jessica De Gouw, Malachi Dower-Roberts, Benedict Hardie, Harry Greenwood, Tony Cogin, Nicholas Hope, Maggie Dence, Bruce Spence
Director-screenwriter: Leah Purcell
Producers: Bain Stewart, David Jowsey, Angela Littleton, Greer Simpkin, Leah Purcell
Executive producers: Anna Cerneaz, Graeme Wood, Neil Balnaves, Hamish Balnaves, Helen Kirby, Margaret Kirby, Ann Sherry, Andrew Wareham, Cecilia Ritchie, Mark Quigley, Alison Owen, Craig Deeker
Director of photography: Mark Wareham
Production designer: Sam Hobbs
Costume designer: Tess Schofield
Music: Salliana Seven Campbell
Editor: Danny Cooper
Sound designer: Liam Egan
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Sales: Memento Films International