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