Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri filmmaker Leah Purcell has walked a long and winding road from relishing a beloved bedtime story read by her late mother, to the big-screen debut of bush epic The Drover’s Wife.
The classic short tale of a harried bush woman who fiercely guards her young children while her husband is away on business, by bush poet Henry Lawson, stuck in the back of Purcell’s mind as a wriggling niggle needing to be unpicked. Many years later, in 2016, she would star in the Helpmann Award-winning stage play that she also penned. Rewriting the narrative through an anti-colonial, Black and feminist lens, Purcell bestowed a First Nations background and the moniker Molly Johnson on Lawson’s unnamed protagonist. Delving deeper into Molly’s troubles in the novel of the same name, this film marks her third spin at the material. It’s still riveting.
Writer-director Purcell once more inhabits Molly’s skin. A strong and proud woman, she holds her own against those who encroach on her hardscrabble land. When escaped convict and traditional storyteller Yadaka (a charismatic Rob Collins) turns up at her door in broken chains, he doesn’t receive the warmest welcome. The weight of history that this soulful man brings with him digs up trauma from her past that’s half-glimpsed in the film’s startling opening sequence.
Disturbed by the shadow of a great huffing, puffing bull, his impending death at the end of Molly’s shotgun sparks a flashback of another terrible incident. These twin night terrors are intercut with the vision of a bruised and battered Molly on horse and cart in the glaring sun. How does it all fit together?
Purcell has done a remarkable job piecing together something even greater than Lawson offered. As Molly, she brings the full weight of her inimitable screen presence that has lit up movies like Lantana, Last Cab to Darwin and Somersault, and seminal series Wentworth and Redfern Now. It’s a gift to see her at work in a role she knows inside out by now. Collins, who previously worked with Purcell on episodes of the First Nations superhero story Cleverman, which she directed, more than holds his own. He captivates in a traditional dance sequence in which Yadaka relays the fate of that unfortunate bull.
The film is at its strongest when focused tightly on Molly and Yadaka. Their tenuous truce is almost immediately upturned by the arrival of a new cop in town, Sergeant Klintoff, played with charm by Lambs of God star Sam Reid. An ostensibly well-meaning force, he can’t help but bring the overbearing arm of the law beating down on Yadaka.
Cinematographer Mark Wareham’s keen eye for capturing seasonal shifts in the Blue Mountains brings beauty to this brutal tale. Dealing in the deep scars of the Frontier Wars, police violence in custody, and government policy that led to the Stolen Generation, The Drover’s Wife is set in the past, but depressingly relevant to the present.
Purcell works in a clever strand on the failure of the emerging feminist movement to be truly intersectional, tapping Cut Snake’s Jessica De Gouw as Klintoff’s wife Louisa, but it gets a little clunky in the final act. That’s a minor misstep in a powerful, and still quite rare, view on the fraught founding of contemporary Australia as told from a woman’s perspective, by a woman filmmaker. And that’s to be celebrated.
Out in Australia May 5 and UK cinemas May 13.