Revision and Update of Henry Lawson’s 1892 Short Story”The driver’s wife,” writer/director/star Leah Purcell’s gritty Australian western”The Legend of Molly Johnson” takes Lawson’s story of an isolated woman battling the elements of the Australian Outbreak and expands on it, meditating on the relationship between Aboriginal people 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 been adapted in almost every medium, “The Legend of Molly Johnson” may be overtly explicit in its feminist bent and thematic preoccupation, but it is a fascinating, unique , western in its own right. right.
Beginning in media 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 struggles with her four children and farm while his husband is out driving. Meets two strangers who pass by her farm – 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 prepares to give birth. From there, the film essentially splits, splitting evenly between Klintoff’s attempts to bring order to the town and Molly’s increasing isolation.
Eventually, she is confronted by another visitor, Yadaka (Rob Collins), a friendly Aboriginal man who is nevertheless wanted for murder in the town. While Klintoff searches for Yadaka, Molly hides him away, forging a bond between the two over their shared abuse at the hands of institutions beyond their control – namely patriarchy and racism.
This theme is established by a subplot involving Louisa’s attempt to start a female-authored journal with her first article dealing with spousal abuse. While Purcell is never less than full-throated in her interests in how larger mechanisms govern the fate of those who are oppressed, the film does well to humanize not only Molly, but Yadaka as well. Once one of Molly’s sons, Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts) comes back to the farm, he and Yadaka form something of a fatherly bond, something 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 story comes to the fore, 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 support 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 kind of nuance to repeatedly emphasize 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 form. “The Legend of Molly Johnson” may at times be too schematic in how it situates its characters and their competing ideologies, but it also has something to say about how colonialism affects every facet of the lives of indigenous people. It’s a flawed but nonetheless compelling Western. [B]