Race, feminism, marriage, motherhood, and colonialism are the potent ingredients in Leah Purcell’s grim but powerful Australian drama The Legend of Molly Johnson. Based on Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story The Drover’s Wife, the film tells the story of the titular Molly (Purcell), a strong, independent woman who wants nothing more than to be able to raise her children in peace and safety. But life in the late-19th century outback makes that a very unlikely wish.
Molly is clearly no stranger to hardship — or hard work. She and her four living children scrape out a difficult but loving existence in the Australian bush while her husband is away droving for months at a time. Molly protects her brood with a combination of grit, common sense, and her trusty shotgun, all of which serve her well — until it’s time for her to deliver her latest baby. She sends the older children away and is therefore alone when she encounters Yadaka (Rob Collins), an Aboriginal man, apparently passed out in her yard. Her prejudice-based suspicion leads to grudging acceptance of his help when her water breaks and, eventually, to respect and even to trust.
Meanwhile, recent English transplant Sgt. Nate Klintoff (Sam Reid) gets caught up in the search for a murderer, while his wife, Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), tries to inspire local interest in standing up for women’s rights. All of the storylines come together as Molly’s true circumstances and origins are revealed. Spoiler alert: This isn’t a story with a happy ending, but it is one that makes you feel every moment of a woman’s struggle to survive, to exist in a world dominated by patriarchal cruelty. Like Jennifer Kent’s brutally effective The Nightingale, The Legend of Molly Johnson finds satisfaction in exacting some revenge for that domination, no matter the consequences.
It’s obvious that this story was a passion project for Purcell, who first adapted Lawson’s story into a play in 2016 before turning it into a movie. Of Aboriginal descent herself, Purcell brings a nuanced, detailed knowledge of Australian history and race relations to the film, making it clear that there are no easy answers to the complex issues that have existed ever since colonizers first set foot on the continent. Her confident direction and spare but memorable script make Molly Johnson’s legend one that you won’t soon forget. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sherin Nicole The British Empire’s predisposition towards planting flags in other people’s living rooms fomented quite a few parallels in history. One of those lies in the colonization of the American Frontier and of the Australian Bush. The seizing of lands, the vilification of the Indigenous populations, and the culture of violence beneath a thin veneer of religion were wrought by men who called themselves pioneers. On paper, other than the accents, it is difficult to tell the two apart (this is sarcasm and yet it is also truth). These parallels are what make the Western such an apt genre for 1893 Australia, but when those wild “western” lands are pitched as a metaphor for Aboriginal Australians and untamed womanhood the genre takes a turn. Read full review
Loren King Australian writer, director, actress Leah Purcell not only creates a powerful, original character for herself to play in Molly Johnson but she gives the durable, male-centered western genre a feminist slant. Purcell adapted this version of The Legend of Molly Johnson from her own acclaimed 2016 play The Drover’s Wife which she based on Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story of the same title. But while Lawson did not give “the wife” a name in his tale of outback hardship, Purcell not only named her but claimed her. Molly is a formidable and memorable presence in Purcell’s gritty story about a frontier mother of four who avenges years of gender and racial violence. Molly’s relationship with an Aboriginal man named Yadaka (Rob Collins) falsely accused of murder who takes refuge on her property leads to awareness of her own family history. It also fuels her rage against the institutionalized misogyny and racist brutality at the heart of the story.
Pam Grady: With her rifle always at the ready, Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell) defends herself, her children, and their small home deep in the Outback in this 19th century drama. But will that gun be enough when man after man – including Yadaka (Rob Collins), a man wanted by the law and presumed guilty on account of being Aboriginal; local constables, Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) and Trooper Leslie (Benedict Hardie); and her absent husband’s surly sheep drover buddies – makes his way to her isolated cabin? After a play and a novel, this is Purcell’s third adaptation of Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story, The Drover’s Wife, expanding the scope of the story to encompass themes of a woman’s empowerment, domestic violence, racism, a mother’s instinct to protect her young, and the powerful natural instinct to grind down and destroy those who don’t fit into socially acceptable boxes. Set against the endless horizon of Australia’s wild, open spaces, Purcell makes manifest how small she is against the forces arrayed against her. Yet, in her powerful performance, as Molly pushes against impossible odds, she is bigger and braver than any of those who would (and sometimes do) harm her – she is the stuff from which legends are made.
Nell Minow: Writer/director Leah Purcell wisely lets close-ups of her own face as the title character tell convey more than any action or dialogue could about who Molly is, what matters most to her, and what made her the person whose expression conveys perpetual anxiousness and resolute determination. Skillfully weaving in themes of race, gender, abuse, and historic injustice while making each character authentically human, Purcell calls on us to consider the human strength and the human cost of history.
Marilyn Ferdinand The beautiful, but harsh outback is the setting for a period Western that tries to reckon with the misogynistic, racist legacy of the British occupation of Australia through the story of one woman—a half-Aboriginal, half-White frontierswoman named Molly Johnson. Leah Purcell, the producer, director, writer, and star of The Legend of Molly Johnson (herself an Aboriginal Australian) returns to a story she has told twice before to flesh out the lives that were whitewashed in the original 1892 short story by foundational Australian writer Henry Lawson. Purcell’s Molly is fiercely devoted to her four children, and her many illegal actions are in service to their welfare as she sees it. The film is a bit overstuffed with incidents that Molly must survive, but Purcell’s committed performance forms the sturdy spine that holds it all together.
Leslie Combemale Purcell’s story takes the Australian romantic myth of frontier freedom and egalitarianism for all, and blows it to smithereens, giving audiences a bleak look into the challenges for indigenous people and women of the time. She is also up to the task as a performer to make Molly, a powerful, stoic survivor, completely believable, and her character someone for whom the audience wishes more than just suffering and survival. Molly is the ultimate mother archetype, and as such arouses our deepest feelings of empathy and compassion. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin The Legend of Molly Johnson is an epic femme-centric Australian period drama written and directed by, and starring the legendary Aboriginal actress Leah Purcell. In her adaptation of Henry Lawson’s classic short story about a drover’s wife and her four children living at a subsistence level in a cabin outside a remote town in the outback. Purcell couches the consideration of timely themes — women’s rights, racial discrimination, the brutal legacy of colonial rule and retribution — in her compelling storytelling about a strong woman’s determination to survive and protect her children.
Susan Wloszczyna: Just like her gutsy titular heroine, Aboriginal actress Leah Purcell proves herself to be quite a quadruple threat as the star, director, writer and co-producer of The Legend of Molly Johnson. Set in 1893 and based on Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife, the film is set in raw and brutal outback in Australia. Purcell portrays an indigenous woman whose husband is often far away from home as he accompanies a herd of sheep across the high country. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: A memorable, if difficult-to-watch film from writer-director-actor Leah Purcell, who has created three different adaptations of the classic Australian bush poet Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife. Having written a play and a novel, Purcell takes the tale from stage-to-page-to-screen in this intimate reworking of the story — giving the unnamed woman a name and paying careful attention to the plight of both abused women and Aboriginal people during Australia’s colonial era. Purcell, who is of Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri and White descent, gives a career-defining performance in front and behind the camera in this labor of love. The entire main cast does a fine job playing layered characters. Rob Collins is wonderful as the heartbreaking Yamada, an escaped Aboriginal prisoner (but also a sensitive storyteller) who shows up on Molly’s (Purcell) property just as she’s about to give birth to her fifth child. This is a story of trauma, disenfranchisement, and the lonely, horrible truths women and people of color had to endure. We need more and more historical dramas, like this and The Nightingale, to center the intersectionality of women and Black/Indigenous characters.
Cate Marquis Australia’s renowned Aboriginal actress Leah Purcell stars in, directs and wrote the adaptation of Henry Lawson’s short story about a drover’s wife living with her four children in the late 19th century Outback. The Legend of Molly Johnson, also known as The Drover’s Wife, blends the drama of classic Westerns with feminist themes and Australian history, weaving in commentary on the period’s racism, colonialism, and women’s rights. This tense tale of adversary, determination and a mother’s courage is further fired up by gripping performances by Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid, and young Malachi Dower-Roberts.
Title: The Legend of Molly Johnson
Directors: Leah Purcell
Release Date: August 19, 2022
Running Time: 109 minutes
Screenwriter: Leah Purcell
Principal Cast: Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid
Distribution Company: Samuel Goldwyn Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin