The harsh landscape of the 19th century Australian outback is arguably the least of anyone’s worries in The Legend of Molly Johnson, the feature debut from writer, director and star Leah Purcell. While this might be the artist’s first plunge into narrative filmmaking, the tale is one that Purcell has been spinning for the past six years. Based on Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story The Drover’s Wife, Purcell’s version was first conceived as a 2016 stage play and then adapted into a novel in 2019 before landing in its current cinematic iteration. In all of her retellings, Purcell expands upon the tragic titular character’s backstory, providing her protagonist with a feminist backbone, a pronounced connection to Aboriginal culture and, most vitally, a name.
Molly Johnson (Purcell) lives amid the Snowy Mountain range in New South Wales’s High Country, often acting as the sole caretaker of her four young children while her husband is out on extended cattle-droving expeditions. A formidable woman, she always has her trusty shotgun within arm’s reach, ready to blow away a rogue steer or unwanted intruder who threatens the safety of her beloved children. Her maternal instincts are amplified when she’s once again left alone with the young ones—this time heavily pregnant, her child due any one of these arid days. When two newcomers arrive on her property, she immediately points the barrel of her gun at their chests. The couple explain that they’re a husband and wife originally from London, and they’re en route to a nearby town so that he can fill a vacant position as sergeant and “uphold Her Majesty’s law and administer the new legislations.”
Approximately 100 years after the colony of New South Wales was established in British-occupied Australia, the land is still in desperate need of “law and order,” which amounts to insisting that the rule of the Queen be respected and followed by all. Sensing that Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) are curiously well-intentioned (and comparatively wealthy), Molly sends her children off with them for an extended stay so that they can socialize, eat richly and leave her in peace to deliver the baby. She sees them off with a kiss and her best wishes, and immediately goes off on a solitary trek to reconnect with nature. When she arrives back home, however, she’s greeted with a shock: A man lies prone in her front yard, badly beaten, with a shackle clasped around his neck. He’s clearly a fugitive, and Molly aims her gun at him out of fear. Just then, a contraction hits her with a wave of agonizing pain. The man rises to his feet, ax at the ready in one hand. Seeing Molly’s water break as she wails, he extends his free hand to her, offering much-needed help during an unexpectedly difficult delivery. As it turns out, the stranger is an Aboriginal man named Yadaka (Rob Collins) who has managed to escape wrongful imprisonment. His crime? “Existing whilst Black.”
There are several major departures between Purcell’s tale and Lawson’s short story, all of them serving to contextualize the racist and misogynistic origins of Australia’s neocolonial national identity. In the original, the title character isn’t given a name at all—she’s simply “the drover’s wife,” and her loyal canine sidekick is called Alligator. (Of course, the dog is given a name while the woman remains totally anonymous, save for her marital ties.) The tale takes an anxious turn when the woman notices a snake enter the house from under the floorboards. Her husband away droving, she sends the children off to bed and stays up all night with Alligator, intent on capturing and killing the serpent that quietly stalks the house. They’re ultimately successful in their hunt, a conclusion that ostensibly serves to demonstrate the outback-produced grit and gumption of Australian-born women. Honestly, that core tenet also runs through The Legend of Molly Johnson, which emphasizes Molly’s rugged self-reliance whenever possible. When word comes out of a murderer on the prowl who targets women and children, the newly-appointed Sergeant Klintoff begins to fret about Molly all alone in the outback. “Nothing delicate about our mountain women,” responds a local clergyman. “Molly Johnson grew up out here. She knows the ways—crack shot, too.”
Yet Purcell’s work also highlights that, while there exists a preconceived notion of the inherent strength of so-called “mountain women,” the deeply ingrained misogyny of the British crown is often the most violent threat to these women’s overarching rights and well-being. Molly is adept at defending her homestead, but it seems that “Her Majesty’s law” doesn’t provide her—or any woman, for that matter—protection from abuse within the household. Similarly, Yadaka is disenfranchised along racial lines. His unlawful freedom is juxtaposed with the fate of other Black Australians, who are sold into slavery, sacrificed to the brutal carceral system or forced to hide and renounce their Aboriginal heritage in an attempt to assimilate into white society. (Even today, Aboriginal individuals comprise only 2% of Australia’s total population, but make up 28% of adult carceral inmates.)
Purcell is careful not to tread too far into abject hopelessness, even when her characters are failed by the insidious prejudices of “justice.” There is an idyllic community of Aboriginal people residing in a cave on a nearby mountainside, and it becomes Yadaka’s quest to reach that safe haven before he is recaptured. Molly eventually realizes that such an environment could be the perfect place to settle with her children, as well.
As a piece of revisionist mythmaking, the film employs a staunchly feminist, Aboriginal liberationist lens, one perfectly molded for Purcell’s specific gaze. She is, indeed, the best person to tell this story. The filmmaker infuses elements of her ancestral past into the folktale, taking direct inspiration from her family’s distant occupational history as cattle drovers and even basing the character of Yadaka on her great-grandfather Tippo Charlie Chambers, who worked as a circus performer in the 1890s (one shot of the bustling settlement that Sergeant Klintoff vows to protect sees a troupe of such performers contorting in the town square). For those familiar with Purcell’s work, her identity as an Aboriginal Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka woman is integral to her artistic practice. As for her long-held fascination with Lawson’s short story and commitment to reimagining it in different iterations, there’s a fairly simple explanation: Her mother used to read her The Drover’s Wife before bed.
Another retelling of a story that Purcell has been refining for over half a decade, The Legend of Molly Johnson is solidly executed and indebted to the writer/director’s intimate knowledge of the project’s emotional and allegorical landscape. Purcell’s performance smolders with cool confidence, peeling back the multifold layers of Molly’s hidden origins, gender-based trauma and stoic determination to protect her children with ease and added intrigue. The theatrical roots are always apparent—from the sparse props to scene-setting soliloquies—yet never cloy or limit in their inclusion. The cinematography by Mark Wareham is exquisite, capturing the desolate charm of a landscape far less hostile than the settlers who have colonized it. This begs the question: Who is the snake in this version of the tale? The sneaky serpent could be the patriarchy, colonization, institutionalized racism and anti-Aboriginal national sentiment—more aptly, it is a venomous concoction of the nation’s most damning and deeply-ingrained injustices.
Director: Leah Purcell
Writer: Leah Purcell
Stars: Leah Purcell, Sam Reid, Rob Collins, Jessica De Gouw
Release Date: August 19, 2022
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan