★★☆☆☆

Actor, playwright, novelist and now screenwriter-director, Leah Purcell is a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from rural Queensland. Her debut film, The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, is the latest representation of a story which places a fearless, pioneering Aboriginal character at the centre of a layered anti-colonial narrative.

A reimagining of the Henry Lawson short story, giving voice and identity to the previously unnamed female protagonist, this revisionist Western has honourable, timely intentions. And brought to screens by Bunya Productions, responsible for Warwick Thornton’s outstanding 2017 film Sweet Country, the outward signs are encouraging. The results, however, are mixed. Revising, and to some degree subverting the conventions of the Australian frontier drama, a genre which has, historically, relegated Indigenous peoples to the background, as guides or merely the victims of brutal violence, The Legend of Molly Johnson puts a gun in the hand of its feisty protagonist.

Drawing upon her ‘personal experience as a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman who grew up in a small country town,’ it is absolutely right that Purcell should be involved in telling this story. For it is a film – and a rich ancient culture – in which storytelling, tales told of generations passed, is a way of learning, of preserving history and connecting with the land of one’s ancestors. The Legend of Molly Johnson is set at the end of the nineteenth century. Molly (Purcell) lives in an isolated hut atop a hill in remote, inland New South Wales. Alone with her four children, her husband away on a yearly sheep drove, Molly must fend for herself.

Fighting off man or beast – at times the distinction blurred – that may emerge from the vast wilderness, she is a crack shot with a rifle. A tireless, independent woman, as the film begins, Molly is heavily pregnant with her next child. She stumbles upon a stranger, in chains, prostrate in front of her house, just as she is on the point of giving birth. Proving to be a gentle, articulate man – and not the guilty, murdering savage he is assumed to be by local townspeople – Yadaka (Rob Collins) is the antithesis of her absent husband.

Though kept at arm’s length, his kindness to Molly’s eldest, Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts, one to look out for in the future), and tenderness towards a woman who has suffered years of abuse, softens rough edges. But the attentions of police, droving crews and town elders seeking to remove Molly’s children (a reference to the dark history of Stolen Generations) are constant outlying threats to a growing domestic harmony. Making its World Premiere at SXSW, The Legend of Molly Johnson is the third stage of an evolving project which has seen the director write and act in a successful theatre production, publish a book and then pen this big screen adaptation.

That Purcell is multi-talented there is no doubt. However, interviewed in December 2019, upon the release of her book, Guardian journalist Paul Daley stated, ‘Purcell talks about the novel, her first, with the unassuming confidence of a writer willing to chance a hand at any new medium.’ And herein lies the problem with the resultant film, where, perhaps, both helming the project behind the camera, as well as taking the lead role in front of it, was an ambitious move too far. Secondary characters are underdeveloped and – in many instances – very poorly performed. Sam Reid and Jessica de Gouw appear as an immigrant English couple, he the new town lawmaker and she a budding feminist writer, campaigning for battered wives.

Neither are given enough material to do anything meaningful with, which limits the impact of their noble intentions. Much of the emotional heavy lifting of the film is attempted by composer Salliana Seven Campbell’s score which, at times, is almost unbearable. Piano, strings, and howling guitar solos, at odds with one another, all fight for dominance. Director of photography Mark Wareham, who worked on several episodes of Mystery Road (also Bunya Productions), develops a strong visual aesthetic and captures the landscapes beautifully, but more diegetic sound would have better complemented his visuals and the script’s emotive moments. The warring, incessant instrumental distracts a great deal.

This core relationship and the performances of Purcell and Collins are the film’s strongest assets, but there are simply too many extraneous threads.  At key moments, Molly makes sure that several bodies and – having freed him – Yadaka’s chains of bondage, are buried deep. The metaphors of colonial history, the subjugation of women and Aboriginal peoples, vicious social ills and a nation’s hidden guilty past are all alluded to. But their treatment in The Legend of Molly Johnson are not developed to the extent needed to leave the lasting gut punch, and change of consciousness, this admirable project could have achieved.

SXSW 2021 takes place between the 16-20 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63