Leah Purcell’s The drover’s wife (#filmreview)

We have been talking about decolonising over at Lisa’s blog, and it just so happens that last week I went to see actor-writer-director Leah Purcell’s feature film The drover’s wife: The legend of Molly Johnson. If you are Australian, or are knowledgeable about Australian literature, you will immediately guess that this would have been inspired by Henry Lawson’s classic Australian short story of the same name. And, if you know Leah Purcell, you will know that she’s a First Nations Australian and will realise that the inspiration has taken a specific First Nations perspective. (Check out her Wikipedia page to see just how active she is, and has been, in the Australian cultural scene.)

The film is based on Purcell’s book of the same name, which Lisa has reviewed. I have been interested in Purcell for a couple of decades now, as, well before blogging, I read her 2002 book Black chicks talking. It comprises interviews she did with nine First Nations women, in which she asked them to tell their stories. It was excellent – and, of course, mind-opening – reading. In it, I met other women whose work I have been interested in since, such as Frances Rings, the newly appointed artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre; actor Deborah Mailman; and filmmaker Rachel Perkins.

Purcell knows how to re-package her ideas and creations for different purposes and audiences. She did it with Black chicks talking, for example, and she’s done it with this story. ABC News explains that Purcell, a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman, “first reimagined” Henry Lawson’s short story as an award-winning play, which premiered in the Belvoir St theatre in 2016. Then, in 2019, she turned it into what became a bestselling novel, before producing this movie in 2021. However, as ABC News says,

the journey really began when her mother read Lawson’s short story to her as a five-year-old growing up in Murgon in rural Queensland.

“I was starting to use my imagination and I put myself in that story,” Purcell said. “I was that little boy who was his mother’s protector.”

You can read Lawson’s original story online. It is a classic Aussie bush story of white settler loneliness and courage. But Purcell isn’t the first to have questioned this bush myth. Published in 1896, just four years after Lawson’s story, was Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel” (my review). It also features an unnamed bushwoman, struggling to survive with a young child and a frequently absent shearer husband. Unlike Lawson’s wife, however, Baynton’s does not come off well. Baynton’s focus is less the terrors of the bush, and more the issue of male violence. There have been other riffs and reimaginings over the years of Lawson’s story, but let’s now cue Leah Purcell’s which not only picks up the issue of male violence, but also the invisibility of First Nations Australians in our colonial settler literature.

I didn’t see the play, and I haven’t read the novel, so all I can comment on is the film, which she not only wrote, directed and co-produced but also plays the titular role of Molly. It’s a powerful movie that confronts us on multiple levels. Its main characters are Molly, her 12-year-old son Danny, Yadaka, an Aboriginal man on the run from police, and two idealistic English newcomers, Nate Clintoff, who is to be the police officer in the area, and his wife Louisa who is keen to improve the lot of women. Purcell astutely plays with the tropes of the Western genre she grounds her film in, together with the bush pioneer myth and settler society stereotypes, to tell a complex story about, as Lisa says, “domestic violence and rape; the Stolen Generations; frontier violence; and the hidden Black ancestry of many White Australians”. (I couldn’t have said it better myself, so why not quote Lisa!) These issues are explored against the backdrop of settler society ideas of justice, religious righteousness, and a nascent sense of injustice (as reflected through Louisa’s writings and her discussions with Nate).

I was engrossed from the beginning – emotionally by the plight of the woman, and intellectually by what I was watching Purcell doing. She takes the conventions of the Western film and of the bush myth, in which good and bad are simple concepts based on colonial ideas of law and justice, and spins them to tell a very different story in which justice is never simple, particularly when there is inequity in power, between white and black, and between man and woman. Molly is the nexus for both these dichotomies. It’s a lot for one character to carry but it works. Molly is strong, but also vulnerable, and so, while there’s much she can control living out there in the bush, in the end she can’t keep the world in which she lives at bay.

In Yadaka (Rob Collins), Purcell brings to the fore the “stray blackfellow” from Lawson’s original. Not only is he significant in correcting the absence or “othering” of the original inhabitants in settler literature, but, without spoiling too much, he plays a pivotal role in Molly’s development and self-knowledge.

The film is set in the Snowy Mountains, an area I know and love so much. It opens with a dramatic landscape shot dominated by distorted and somewhat grotesque gum trees, which sets the movie’s unsettled tone. We return to this shot later, to mark our return to that point in the narrative. The cinematography is strong with several close low angle shots of Molly conveying her strength and power, and those expansive shots of big skies and wide, spare landscapes so typical of the Western. It’s not subtle, and at times it felt a bit heavy-handed, but overall it did justice to Purcell’s conception.

A strength of the movie is its music. It’s edgy, in a modern way, reflecting Purcell’s modern revisioning, but it includes strains of folk and western music, reminding us of the world in which it is set and the conventions being drawn on.

There was a misstep for me, though, in the handling of Louisa’s crusade against battered women. While there was awareness of the issue – Barbara Baynton, after all, exposed it in her work – Purcell’s handling, including reference to that “whose story is it to tell” issue, felt anachronistic.

However, it is so good seeing Australia’s colonial past being revisited and presented from perspectives that were so silenced at the time. Leah Purcell’s The drover’s wife is one of many such stories appearing now. Australia has had a love affair with its past, but that past has, until now, been viewed through distorted lenses. Finally, those lenses are being questioned …

Tessa Wooldridge has also reviewed Purcell’s work.

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson
Dir: Leah Purcell
Prod: Bunya Productions and Oombarra Productions, 2021

33 thoughts on “Leah Purcell’s The drover’s wife (#filmreview)

  1. Oh my, this does sound like a film I must bestir myself to see. You write such good film reviews, Sue, you always make me want to go to the cinema!
    (Not yet, I’d ruin it for everyone else with outbursts of covid-cough).
    PS Thanks for the mentions!

    • A pleasure Lisa. I thought you wrote your book review so clearly.

      I’d love you to see the film and tell me how it stacks up against the book. Poor you with the cough. I’ve only a couple of times had a cough that’s hung on forever after a virus, and it’s so exhausting and, as I know you’ve found, physically painful if the coughing is intense and extended. I do hope it is dying away.

    • And darn it. I’ve just noticed that the originally published post had the ABC News quote in the wrong position. I’ve moved it back now. I cut it back a bit, and while doing that it seems that Gutenberg block editor and I had a little falling out and it “was moved” (surely I didn’t do it – haha) to the wrong position. Why didn’t I see that when previewing at the end? Because, stupidly, I thought I’d fixed that bit and it was right now so didn’t “see”!! I’d make a bad bad editor.

      • I always find errors after I’ve posted, that I thought I had fixed or just didn’t see in the draft format. I think sometimes, seeing it ‘live’ is the trick!!

        • Weird though isn’t it, Brona … even when you look at it in “preview” which looks live. It’s something to do with our mindset I guess. Suddenly we seem to properly read it as our readers might and see the errors, whereas before we read it as the writer and see what we “know” we meant!

  2. Good review. I noted anachronistic elements but given Henry Lawson’s mother’s feminist activities in the late 19th-century (and similar anachronistic elements in the outstanding TV series “Call the Midwife” I find myself persuaded to accept such things. I’d not read Leah Purcell’s novel – so it all unfolded for me there on the screen – though I had a moment with the appearance of the first little boy – freckled, red-haired – when I thought … Hmmm? What’s happening here! With Leah playing the lead role – but she could easily have been a non-Indigenous character (except that I knew she was not) – so I was well set up for the revelations!

    • Interesting Jim, Call the midwife has felt less anachronistic to me as it’s been unfolding changing times. It’s generally felt pretty true to me. But yes, we know there was a lot of feminist activities around the time it was set…it usually doesn’t intrude for me but here it did feel a very modern interpretation of the issue. I thought Nate an interesting character, and Louisa was gorgeous. I like Purcell’s nuanced portrayal of settler society ie not painting them all with the same brush.

  3. This is a magnificent and comprehensive account of the film and its genesis.
    I was amazed to learn that Leah Purcell first encountered ‘The Drover’s Wife’ when she was five years old. So in one sense this movie has been in the making for a very long time. Fascinating!

    • Oh thanks so much Carmel. Yes, it seems like it’s been mulling around in there for a long time. Your finding it interesting it means a lot. (I’m on my phone and hit the wrong button so posted this comment half-baked. I really shouldn’t do these things on the phone)

  4. My dear friend up in Brisbane, a keen movie-goer and especially Oz movie-goer, was ambivalent about it. But her outlook on .. well, stuff, is quite different from yours, which always seeks to find the meaning. She kind of waits for meaning to hit her – if that makes sense ..

    • I would have thought the meaning of this one would have hit her on the head, M-R, though perhaps it’s a matter of which meaning. In one sense it seemed obvious but in another sense it was complex. I’m glad your friend is a keen Oz movie-goer. We need more of us!

  5. Thank you for your excellent review, Sue. Having read Purcell’s novel (and blogged about it: https://tessawooldridge.com/2020/03/20/a-name-and-a-voice-for-the-drovers-wife/), I was keen to see the film. I, too, found the ‘battered woman’ storyline somewhat jarring (in both novel and film) but I haven’t read widely about public understanding/exposure of abuse of woman in colonial Australia. Perhaps it was more commonly known and discussed than I had imagined. Purcell must have chosen the first name of Mrs Clintoff (Louisa) and the title of Clintoff’s fledgling journal (The Dawn) in full knowledge of Louisa Lawson’s literary endeavours. I should go back and read some issues of Lawson’s The Dawn to see if family violence is a topic she canvasses.

    • Thanks Tessa will read your review. I think there was awareness of the issue, though I don’t know how much. It was particularly the issue of “whose story is it to tell” which jarred for me. I certainly thought Louisa snd her name was inspired by Louisa Lawson. It’s hard to think otherwise isn’t it?

  6. Pingback: A Name and a Voice for the Drover’s Wife | Thoughts from an Idle Hour

  7. I have Frank Moorhouse’s anthology of writers reimagining The Drover’s Wife, and I think that includes Leah Purcell’s play. It’s one of our important legends I think and benefits from the feminist influence of Louisa Lawson whose story it was originally. I’m not sure if I read it when I was 6 but it was certainly in one of the (Victorian) primary school readers.
    I haven’t been to a movie for a couple of years, but I’ll look out for this one.

    • Oops, trigger finger on my phone again. I’m pretty sure I had it in a Queensland school reader too. I had forgotten Louisa Lawson’s connection to the story but am sure that she’s the inspiration for Purcell’s Louisa.

      If you see the movie would love to hear your take. I’d love to have seen it again before writing this but at least I’ve got something down.

      • Louisa was a fine oral story teller – which reminds me, I saw that her biographer, Brian Matthews died last week. I think Henry’s sister may also have written a version of this story.
        I don’t doubt that Henry wrote out of his own experience – Louisa didn’t move the family to Sydney until he was about 17 – but I think he was greatly influenced by Louisa’s telling and retelling of family and bush stories.

  8. I have seen the trailer for this film a couple of times and haven’t had the nerve to attend as it looks so violent. I would probably do better with the play/book. The older I get the less violence I can watch. Reading about it though is easier as no pictures in my head as much, if that makes sense! 😍

    • I’m with you Pam. I’ve never been a watcher of violence actually, particularly of gratuitous, escapist violence. There is violence in this movie of course but in relatively small pockets, and a lot of it is implied rather than seen explicitly.

    • I knew it was coming – and nearly delayed my post until after it – but we are in Melbourne and not watching our usual schedule. It’s recorded at home and I can watch it on iView if I don’t want to wait. Either way I will definitely see it as I always watch Australian Story eventually!

  9. I enjoy when a story gets worked and reworked into different media. I first saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a play, then I read the book, then I saw the movie with Jack Nicholson, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Douriff. At first, I wondered what it meant that the script barely changed in any of these. Sure, there are some changes, like the stage version being limited to one room, and book being narrated by a silent character, etc. Instead of seeing a story from new angles, to me it reads more like experiencing it “like you’ve never seen it before!” (as I’ve heard advertisers say).

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