The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is a compelling story weaving in present and historical truths

When The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is released in cinemas across the country this week, it will be another feather in the cap for lead actor, writer, director and co-producer of the film, Leah Purcell, on a journey lasting almost five decades.

The Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman first reimagined the Henry Lawson short story as the Balnaves Fellowship recipient award-winning play that premiered in the Belvoir St theater in 2016, and then as a bestselling novel published by Penguin Random House in late 2019.

But the journey really began when her mother read Lawson’s short story to her as a five-year-old growing up in Murgon in rural Queensland.

“I was starting to use my imagination and I put myself in that story,” Purcell said.

“I was that little boy who was his mother’s protector.”

When the film opens in cinemas this Thursday, after a two-year delay to its release due to the pandemic, it will be the self-made all-rounder’s debut feature film.

Molly Johnson is fiercely protective of her four children in a story that asks: how far do you go to protect the ones you love?(Supplied: Roadshow)

The story is centered on the heavily pregnant Molly Johnson (Purcell), whose husband is away droving cattle, leaving her on their remote Snowy Mountains homestead to care for their four children.

When she meets Yadaka (Rob Collins), an Aboriginal man on the run from police, both are forced to confront some long-held secrets.

“The essence of the Henry Lawson short story and his underlining themes of racism, the frontier violence and gender violence are there,” she said.

“I have breathed oxygen into them and placed them at the forefront.

“But there is a difference because I have layered in my personal Indigenous family stories as the foundation, highlighting the real truth of these times.”

Purcell also gave the drover’s wife a name – Molly Johnson. Something Lawson didn’t do.

“I was well aware of the romanticized version that he had of women in general, of that lifestyle on the land, and how the writing of the black man was stereotypical – he was the lazy black man,” she said.

“Of course, in Henry Lawson’s short story, there’s the black snake.

“I replaced that with a black man.

“But that black man becomes the hero.

An Aboriginal man and a boy looking off into the distance.
Yadaka (Rob Collins) and Molly Johnson’s son Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts) bond in The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson.(Supplied: Roadshow)

Purcell began writing The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson eight years ago.

“This was 2014 when the Northern Territory intervention was happening, and all across social media, Aboriginal men were being vilified.

“And I just said, well, that’s not true,” she said.

“I grew up with my Aboriginal uncles – they were my father figures.

“I’ve got nephews who are great fathers and grandfathers – who are there, very present for their families.”

Purcell loosely based Yadaka on her great grandfather.

“My great grandfather was considered a great man who put his family first, who worked extremely hard trying to make a home for them.”

In order to give depth and a backstory to each character, Purcell conducted extensive research, diving deep into Australian history, while also speaking to elders and property owners in the Snowy Mountains.

“Having the western genre, placing it in 1893 allowed me to be brutally honest.

“And that’s what the crime is — that we are still treating each other this way, and it’s wrong.

“And we have to make that change and turn the mirror back on ourselves and who we are today.”

Purcell’s husband Bain Stewart is the lead producer on the film and executive producer of Oombarra Productions, run by himself and Purcell.

An Indigenous man and an Indigenous woman dressed formally looking at the camera
Leah Purcell and Bain Stewart are a great team.(Supplied: Marnya Rothe)

He’s a Ngugi-Goenpul-Noonuccal man from North Stradbroke and Moreton Islands in Queensland.

“Leah is so authentic and real and a truth-teller and she just tells it the way it is,” Stewart said.

“Somebody prominent said that they’ll be teaching Leah’s version of The Drover’s Wife in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years and not so much Lawson’s version, because it’s closer to the truth and reality.

Purcell said good art is about starting a conversation. She wants her audiences to be intellectually stimulated and on the edge of their seats.

“You’re going to be tossed and turned,” she said.

“This film will sit with you, and you are going to want to talk about it.”

Purcell has been approached to turn The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson into an Opera and there’s also a Premium Limited TV series to come.

“I want this story to get out there and for Australia to get behind Molly Johnson and support her.

“And let’s knock Ned Kelly off his pedestal and put Molly Johnson up there.

“A hero, sorry heroine, for our country.”

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson opens in cinemas Thursday, May 5.

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