The never-ending saga of ‘The Drover’s Wife : The Legend of Molly Johnson‘ comes to a Roadshow cinema near you on May 5th. There may be other promotional opportunities elsewhere, but on Sydney’s Lower North Shore, on Saturday April 30th, a screening with writer/director/star Leah Purcell herself, is at the Cremorne Orpheum cinema.
Here’s what I thought last November when it screened at the Sydney Film Festival:
The very dramatic feature ‘The Drover’s Wife : The Legend of Molly Johnson‘ – is ‘A Film By Leah Purcell’. Boy is she living Molly Johnson – having originally written the play which I reviewed enthusiastically at Belvoir in 2016; then turned it into a novel which another reviewer called “a herky-jerky cavalcade of junk literature kitsch and callow grotesquery”: despite which, Purcell has turned the novel (rather than the play) into a film in which she stars and directs! And threatens a mini-series!!!
Does the melodrama that Purcell had borrowed from the time of her story (1893) work as well in novel and film as well as it undoubtedly did on stage? And can the stunning cinematography of the Snowy Mountains and Monaro plains make up for the enclosed world captured by Stephen Curtis’s evocative slab hut set on stage? And did we really need the added drama of a Pommy policeman having moral qualms about hanging Molly for her three quite justifiable murders? And we certainly didn’t need the unbelievable sight of the policeman’s wife risibly demonstrating against the cold, high-plains hanging – from a lone, ancient snow-gum aberrantly surrounded by top-hatted gents there to see justice done, and the local economy protected.
Despite these flaws, Purcell’s retelling of Henry Lawson’s story of outback courage with an Indigenous slant is basically brilliant. Molly believes she’s white. Molly knows she’s abused by her drunken husband. Molly will do anything to protect her kids – four of whom have crosses up on the hill. There are few actors who could portray such a character truly apart from this mixed-race Goa, Gunggari, Wakka-Wakka woman from Murgon. You may know her from ‘Wentworth‘. I know her from ‘Box the Pony’ back in 1997. Discovering Molly’s Ngarigo Aboriginal origins may be a shock, but it’s embraceable as she gets close to Rob Collins’s definitely Indigenous escapee, Yadaka; and as he wins the trust of her eldest boy, Danny. There’s an unspoken subtlety in these human relationships around the slab hut that survives the outside world’s melodrama.
And the outside world is as brutal as any Warwick Thornton drama. It’s based around the unlovely folk ‘pioneering’ in an unbelievable wild west town, the murder of a squatter’s family which threatens the economy, and a pukka judge who doesn’t know the difference between ‘hung’ and ‘hanged’ when it’s a person! Oddly, he got it right in the novel! Did we need them?
Just as Lawson told his whole story around the woman, her dog and a threatening snake, and Russell Drysdale captured a whole world in his painting of the lonely wife awaiting her man’s return, Leah Purcell achieved much the same in her play. Personal (and racial) survival.
Forget the mini-series, Leah!