The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (Australia 2021)

Leah Purcell as Molly Johnson (all images courtesy Modern Films)

Australian Cinema has had periods of both innovation and exploration, as well as periods of stagnation, since the first films were produced in the early 1900s. Currently there is a distinct development with the increase of films made by Indigenous filmmakers about the lives of Indigenous characters, both contemporary and historical. The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell is the latest example of an Indigenous film reflecting on colonial history in Australia. In doing so it takes us back to some of the earliest Australian films that have been compared to American ‘Westerns’. These were, in Australian terms, ‘bushranger films’ and the earliest of these was the Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. Like the American West, Australia in the second half of the 19th century and on into 1920s was a difficult territory to police, even after the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

Molly meets an Indigenous man who is ‘on the run’. This grab demonstrates the ‘Scope photography and the use of spectacular landscapes.

Bushrangers were ‘outlaws’ and Australia also experienced ‘gold rushes’, cattle drives and conflicts between settlers and Indigenous peoples. In Australian films up to at least the 1970s (and arguably much later), Indigenous characters were usually portrayed either as ‘exotic’ figures in the landscape, poor communities in shanty towns, children in mission schools or trackers working for the police – familiar ‘social types’ in both American and Australian ‘Westerns’. In the last few years more radical films have appeared with Indigenous characters central to the narrative and a serious intent to explore colonial issues of racism and exclusion. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is set in the late 1920s while Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (Australia 2018) is set in the 1820s in Tasmania. Both films got a limited UK release and Sweet Country has been shown on UK TV. The contemporary TV crime series Mystery Road initiated by Ivan Sen has some links to the historical narratives and has also been seen on UK TV. David Gulpilil, who died in 2021, was perhaps the major Indigenous star actor and he appeared in several films which explored aspects of of Australian history featuring significant Indigenous characters. The one most relevant to the discussion here would be The Tracker (Australia 2002), set, like Sweet Country in the 1920s and featuring Gulpilil as a tracker working for the police searching for an Indigenous man accused of murdering a white woman.

Leah Purcell is a proud Goa-Gungarri-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland. She is an internationally acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, director, novelist and actor and a cultural icon and activist, whose work stands at the forefront of the Black and Indigenous cultural renaissance and protest movement sweeping Australia and the world. Australian Financial Review named Purcell as one of Australia’s Top 10 culturally influential people because ‘she allows white audiences to see from an Aboriginal perspective’.  (from  Press Pack for The Drover’s Wife)

The Drover’s Wife was initially a short story by Henry Lawson, first published in a magazine in 1892. Lawson is one of the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers, especially in relation to ‘bush stories’. The story has been re-worked many times since and in 1945 a painting by Russell Drysdale was given the same title and appears to present the woman of the story depicted against the wild country (although the artist denied this). The short story offers only the initial scene in the film in which the woman and her children are threatened by a wild animal (a snake in the original story). The woman’s struggle in the story and the painting were long seen as representing the white settler’s attempt to survive in the harsh conditions of the ‘bush’. Leah Purcell extended the story in her stage play and now in her film offers a rich and complex narrative about a woman and her historical role viewed through the lens of Indigenous story-telling. The film follows what happens over the next few months to Molly Johnson and her children.

Russell Drysdale’s 1945 painting

Malachi Dower-Roberts as Danny, Molly’s oldest child attempting to defend himself as he has been taught.

Purcell manages to include the racism and exclusion directed towards Indigenous people, the social class hierarchy of Victorian England, the nascent suffrage movement and the ‘stealing’ of Indigenous children. All of this is offered in the genre context of a Western with Mark Wareham’s photography of the Snowy Mountains and Salliana Seven Campbell’s very effective score. I think all the performances are good and especially Malachi Dower-Roberts as the young Danny Johnson.

The film’s narrative has a complex structure and also includes several ‘reveals’ that I don’t wish to spoil. It is necessary, however, to explain that Purcell uses devices such as flashbacks/flashforwards, ‘dream figures’ and occasions when edits seem to confuse the meaning of certain scenes. Her commitment to Indigenous storytelling may also create questions about the final sequence which acts as an epilogue. On a second viewing I noticed a number of metaphors including for instance the animal which threatens the family in the opening of the story. The snake has become a bullock, which for me symbolises the alien intrusion of a non-indigenous beast brought by settlers in order to fully exploit the land they have stolen.

Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) and the heavily pregnant Molly.

This film has been described as an ‘Indigenous feminist Western’ and Purcell has created a secondary but parallel narrative about the young wife of the district’s new police sergeant. Both the sergeant and Louisa, his wife, are newly arrived from England. Louisa is a proto-feminist character, concerned about the widespread domestic abuse handed out by male settlers towards their wives. She’s determined to publish a women’s newsletter and to build a campaign. I don’t know whether this is historically accurate for the 1890s but it enables Purcell to set up the question of white feminism and whether it is possible for Louisa to ‘give a voice’ to Indigenous women. Molly Johnson has her own ‘voice’ and she intends it to be heard. Just as important, the extended story that Purcell puts onscreen also includes the issue of ‘stolen children’, the attempt by the authorities to take the children of mixed race families and to select those with least ‘Indigenous blood’ to be brought up as white children in foster homes (while ‘darker’ children are trained as servants). This practice is the central focus of Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002), set in the 1930s but only properly being discussed some sixty years later in the 1990s. The Drover’s Wife is certainly a narrative rich in questions and challenges for audiences, not just in Australia but everywhere experiencing exclusion an inequalities, i.e. most definitely the UK and US. But it’s also an exciting and engaging popular narrative. Its use of familiar conventions from Hollywood Westerns is effective and helps audiences outside Australia to begin to explore the colonial legacy of British settler culture.

Sergeant Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his trooper with, in the background, the local clergyman representing the gentry in the town of Everton

The Drover’s Wife  is a début film. It’s asking a lot to script, direct and star in your first feature but I think that Leah Purcell pulls it off with real passion and commitment. Initially released by Modern Films on just 37 prints in May, the film has slowly moved around the UK and Ireland. It appears to have a traditional release pattern and will be available to stream in August in the UK. Modern Films are also committed to supporting local independent venues through ‘various events’ so it’s worth checking out their website. The Drover’s Wife is definitely worth looking out for but do try and catch it in a cinema on the big screen if you can. In the US, The Drover’s Wife will be released by Samuel Goldwyn Films in August 2022.

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