The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is a harrowing Australian western told through a feminist, indigenous lens

Lean Purcell writes, directs and stars in this adaptation of her own stage play, an electrifying re-telling of a classic Australian tale.

Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021)

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is in UK cinemas from 13 May.

The original Henry Lawson short story, The Drover’s Wife (1892), is a tale of an unnamed woman’s survival amid the dangers of outback life while her husband is away droving. Leah Purcell’s re-imagining – first as a stage play, then a novel, and now a feature film – casts it through feminist and Indigenous lenses to create a complex and ultimately harrowing Australian western.

Naming the character, and then including that name in the title, makes clear the shift in focus, and Molly is the film’s heart and soul. Purcell, who wrote and directed, takes on the lead role herself, as she did on stage. The results are electrifying. One might guess that after so much time living in the character’s skin, it makes sense that Purcell would embody her so adeptly, but the performance is still forcefully impressive. The story crafted here calls for Molly to be both a heavily pregnant woman alone and unprotected in a man’s world, and a sturdy defender of the homestead. When Molly tells an intruder “I’ll shoot you where you stand, and I’ll bury you where you fall,” her conviction puts most wouldbe cowboys to shame – by the time she says this, she’s already expertly placed a bullet between the eyes of a bullock that comes marauding on to the property.

Leah Purcell in The Drover's Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson (2021)
Leah Purcell in The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnsonroadshow

Purcell’s version of the story contains several elements that enrich the otherwise simple premise, complicating Molly’s life and the politics of the world surrounding her while also adding layers to the tragedy that unfolds. A British lawman, Nate Klintoff (Sam Reid), arrives at the nearby Everton Outpost with his proto-feminist wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), who has plans to begin a newsletter agitating for the rights of battered women. An Aboriginal convict, Yadaka (Rob Collins), appears out of the bush with a neck shackle and entreaties for kindness and aid from Molly.

These relationships are initially strained, Molly’s tough exterior coloured by mistrust, but she lowers her guard to a degree. The Klintoffs’ impact on Molly’s situation is treated with clear-eyed realism, while the growing connection depicted between her and Yadaka is one of the film’s most emotionally satisfying turns.

The escalation of drama and violence in the film’s final act – as suspicions begin to arise when Molly’s husband doesn’t return with the droving crew – might feel somewhat sudden, but it’s delivered with an unwavering hand and offers a powerful reminder of the grim and brutal realities of Outback life.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

Get your copy