Revising and updating Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story “The Drover’s Wife,” writer/director/star Leah Purcell’s gritty Australian western “The Legend of Molly Johnson” takes Lawson’s story of an isolated woman fighting against the elements of the Australian outbreak and expands it, meditating on the relationship between Aboriginals and European colonizers in the nineteenth century. While the film may be Purcell’s directorial debut, it is also adapted from her play — and subsequent novel — of the same name. Obviously, a story that has stuck with her and has been adapted in almost every medium, “The Legend of Molly Johnson,” may be overtly explicit in its feminist bent and thematic preoccupations, but it is a fascinating, singular, western in its own right.
Beginning in medias res as an injured Johnson and her young son travel through the outbreak, the film quickly flashes back to a heavily pregnant Molly as she contends with her four children and homestead while he husband is out droving. Meeting two strangers who come by her homestead — the new sheriff Nate Klintoff (Sam Reid) and his wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) — Molly quickly unloads her children to stay with a priest in town while she gets ready to give birth. From there, the film essentially bifurcates, splitting evenly between Klintoff’s attempts to bring order to the town and Molly’s increased isolation.
Eventually, she is confronted by another visitor, Yadaka (Rob Collins), a kind Aboriginal man who is nevertheless wanted for murder in the town. While Klintoff searches for Yadaka, Molly hides him away, creating a bond between the two over their shared abuse at the hands of institutions beyond their control — namely the patriarchy and racism.
This theme is hammered home by a subplot involving Louisa’s attempts to start a women’s-written journal, with her first article dealing with spousal abuse. While Purcell is never less than full-throated in her interests in how larger mechanisms control the fate of those who are oppressed, the film does well in not only humanizing Molly but also Yadaka. Once one of Molly’s sons, Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts) comes back to the homestead, he and Yadaka form something like a paternal bond, something that he never got from his own father, who is too busy spending his time with prostitutes to care about Molly and his family.
As the three bond, Molly’s history comes to the forefront, and Purcell manages to draw connections between Yadaka’s treatment by the authorities and her own at the hands of her husband. Caught in the middle is Klintoff, who is forced to hunt down Yadaka but also tries to be supportive of his progressive wife and her causes.
All of these narrative threads eventually come to a head in a conclusion that is perhaps too didactic, sacrificing any semblance of nuance to repeatedly underline Purcell’s message. Yet, what comes before that conclusion shows a confident writer, director, and star’s willingness to modernize classic literature to her own mold. “The Legend of Molly Johnson” may be, at times, too schematic in how it positions its characters and their competing ideologies, but it also has something to say about how colonialism affects every facet of life for Indigenous peoples. It’s a flawed but nevertheless compelling western. [B]