In ReviewThe Legend of Molly Johnson

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars – ‘Recommended’
Directed by Leah Purcell
Written by Leah Purcell
2021 | 1h 49min
Streaming: Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Apple TV, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube

Leah Purcell is an author as well as a theater, film and television actor. The Legend of Molly Johnson, her film version of The Drover’s Wife, drew praise at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Dublin International Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, and the Asian Film Festival in Barcelona.

The Drover’s Wife began as an 1892 short story by Henry Lawson. As originally written, it has been described as gothic fiction, a woman on her own battling the environment and needing protection. A 1945 painting by Russell Drysdale drew inspiration from the story, or at least its title, picturing a sheepherder’s wife in the outback wrestling with multiple children and a poisonous snake.

Australian storyteller Leah Purcell wrote an acclaimed stage play inspired by the short story, but she endowed the hardy frontierswoman with survival skills not acknowledged in previous accounts. In so doing, she created a heroine far closer to reality for the many women who have been pioneers in various times and centuries.

As a small child, Purcell listened to her mother read aloud the Henry Lawson short story. Growing up in a mixed-race family with Aboriginal ancestors, Purcell experienced some of the living challenges in the story, which she included in her screenplay. She consulted diaries written in the time of her great-grandfather for additional authenticity.

Cinematography and costumes vividly bring to life the roiling frontier life of British immigrants who made Australia their home in the 19th century. Men who worked as herdsmen put in long months away from home. Their wives inhabited isolated cabins in the outback. In order to survive, such women needed practical skills and resilience. Haunting colors of the desert contrast with mystery and beauty of the snowcapped hills in the distance.

Purcell inhabits the skin of Molly Johnson from the first moment, moving about quietly in advanced state of pregnancy, watching her four children play, her eyes always scanning the horizon for anything amiss. At one gesture or sound from her, 12 year old Danny quickly gathers the smaller kids and keeps them behind their mother, as she aims a shotgun at whatever disturbed their existence – a foraging wild bull or a stranger on horseback.

Her visitors may be a newly arrived couple from England (police Sgt. Nate Klintoff and wife Louisa) in search of the nearest town; or an escaped fugitive (Yadaka); or bounty hunters. Her husband’s absence does not seem to trouble her since she has superb command of her immediate environment. Sitting quietly outside her ramshackle home, with a small bouquet of wildflowers picked by her son Danny, Molly Johnson seems the picture of contentment. Her shotgun leans on a woodpile within easy reach.

WATCH: The Legend of Molly Johnson trailer

The story unfolds between her tiny cabin in the outback, and her connection to the rowdy town a few miles away. When Sgt. Klintoff arrives in town, the presiding judge says to him: “If you make it past Sunday, I’ll swear you in.” From comic drunken brawls in the unpaved town streets to the posting of invitations to join a posse, the dustups begin to take on a sinister nature.

This Australian Western is riveting for all the reasons that Westerns invite a confrontation over the moral high ground, and more. The characters are deeply written and the parts are well cast. Interactions between British immigrants and Indigenous people echo the heartbreaking clashes found in North American and other continents.

Other unforgettable moments: Molly giving birth in the outback, walking barefoot in the snow, dreams recalling the ancestors.

Overall it’s the strength of a quiet woman who loves her children above all else, and will defend them at any cost. Molly Johnson is a heroine in any century. Highly recommended.

The Legend of Molly Johnson may be purchased online. It also is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Jeanne Powell
Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.