The Drover’s Wife: Leah Purcell on the narrative universe of her story

Leah Purcell’s new film is a riveting western that reimagines a classic story. But that’s not all it is.

Leah Purcell’s mind whizzes at a mile a minute. She can rattle off a dozen names and stories of her fictional heroine Molly Johnson’s ancestors and descendants.

One of them went to London, another was part of the Stolen Generation while one became friends with the Governor’s wife.

“There’s so much scale and there’s plenty of story,” Purcell tells of where The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson could go from here.

Purcell created a whole universe around the character originally conceived by Henry Lawson in his short story The Drover’s Wife. Purcell gave the character a name and a backstory, first in an acclaimed stage production, then a novel and now a film. And soon, an entire narrative universe.

She brought to life a relic from another time and made her vivid and alive for a modern audience.

“I could have done the straight Henry Lawson version but then it wouldn’t be my story,” Purcell says. “I’m in that position where I can [tell that story] through my First Nations lens.

“I wanted to put my lens on it and be that truth teller, and shock with a little bit of shock value and go ‘this is our past, you can’t ignore it, let’s acknowledge it, let’s look at it, let’s dissect it and pave the future a better way’.”

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson tells the story of a determined outback woman, protecting her children from a colonial world that wasn’t built for a black woman. For years, it’s been Purcell’s baby, nurtured from a spark of when her mother used to tell her Lawson’s story to something that will soon spawn a TV series and potentially a rock opera.

Purcell wrote, directed, produced and reads up the screen in The Drover’s Wife. There is no one who knows this story and this world better than her.

When you watch the film, you can feel Purcell’s passion, her faith in the purpose of her story. There are themes she’s layered in that bends Lawson’s story to reflect the experiences of real women then and, unfortunately, still now.

One of the more harrowing aspects of that is domestic violence, an experience Purcell knows from her life. She had hesitated to include it but it ultimately made the cut. In the audience of her film, there will be women who can relate, and Purcell wants them to know they’re not alone.

“It is a lonely place,” she says. “You cut ties with your community because you don’t want them to know or you don’t want them to see. And sometimes people in the community don’t want to be involved. It’s a sticky situation.

“So if I can encourage them to make a change for themselves, even if it’s one woman, then I’ve done my job as an artist.

“I want my audience to walk away and start conversations on all the issues that are running through it, I want them to be emotionally and intellectually stimulated. I want them to sit quiet at the end of this and think about what they can do to make a change or be the voice of, or give voice to someone else.

“Listen to someone that’s dealing with it, whether it’s black deaths in custody, Indigenous issues or domestic violence. Help make a change.

“We heal through our stories, they bring an understanding to another perspective. What you do with it is entirely up to you.”

She’s lived with Molly Johnson for so long, but Purcell is not ready to give her up, even though she has other creative ideas she wants to pursue. But Molly isn’t done – “I reckon in the next five years, that’s crazy, OK, let’s say the next 10 years”.

Purcell’s still thinking about all the stories for the TV spin-off – an epic saga of family and Australia – and maybe a second series and another novel. And, of course, the rock opera.

“I can’t wait to see this opera. Even a musical will be great. I’ll jump in! I want to direct!”

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is in cinemas now


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