“Snake! Mother, here’s a snake!”
Henry Lawson’s story of a mother defending the homestead from a reptilian intruder, first published in 1892, is a classic of Australian literature, his protagonist still an icon of rugged resilience in the face of the outback’s many dangers.
It is precisely its centrality to the national mythos that makes The Drover’s Wife ripe for a postcolonial renovation: this is the premise of Leah Purcell’s feature film adaptation, which is patterned in the mold of the revisionist western, drawing on the likes of HBO’s Deadwood and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, with an added wallop of mystery.
The film arrives in theaters as the latest manifestation of Purcell’s ongoing engagement with Lawson’s short story, which began with her highly decorated stage adaptation of 2016, followed in 2019 by a novel. (The film too was completed in 2019, but held for release due to COVID.)
Your grandpa’s bush tale, this is not. And so you would expect coming from Purcell, a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman whose semi-autobiographical first play, Box the Pony, which debuted in 1997, tackled a youth spent on an Aboriginal mission in Queensland beset by poverty, violence, and racism.
In The Drover’s Wife the Legend of Molly Johnson – the titular figure having been bequeathed the name by Purcell, who inhabits the role with twinkle-eyed ferocity – there is no snake lurking in the woodpile. Rather than slithering silently along the ground, the threats that present themselves to the pregnant Molly and her four children of her tend to walk on two legs.
If Lawson gestured towards the dangers of being a frontierswoman absent a husband, then Purcell makes them explicit (and brutally so, in a couple of scenes).
Molly’s unease around the men who happen upon her humble shack – from Nate Klintoff (Sam Reid), the new sergeant in town, accompanied from England by his plummy wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw), to a powerfully grimy pair of her husband’s mates ( Anthony Cogin and Harry Greenwood); all characters of the writer-director’s invention – is intimated to have stemmed from traumatic experience.
You get the sense that her husband’s absence is maybe not such a problem, after all.
Certainly, the way that Molly reaches for the knife in her boot on hearing an errant sound, with Mark Wareham’s expressive camera circling her like a phantom predator, suggests that it’s an act of muscle memory.
One visitor is able to earn her trust, however: Yadaka (Rob Collins), an Aboriginal man on the run from the law. He is in effect Purcell’s retort to the “stray blackfellow” of Lawson’s short story, who is mentioned in passing as having cheated the drover’s wife – the architect of the hollow woodheap that becomes a hiding spot for the deadly snake.
Though Molly is initially wary of the fugitive – “Cross me and I’ll kill you,” she warns before helping him free of his shackles – she softens at the sight of his skill with her eldest, Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts), a plucky kid still growing into the many responsibilities he already shoulders.
Despite the murder charges that hang over him, Yadaka is only an unlikely ally for Molly if you’re completely oblivious to the film’s politics – which would be difficult, given how frequently they rise to the surface in the form of markedly on-the- No dialogue. “My crime, Missus?” Yadaka responds to his host’s questioning of him. “Existing while Black.”
The ennobling of this character is one of the more pointed revisions Purcell makes to Lawson’s story, bringing the ugly racial politics on which colonial Australia was founded to the fore, alongside those of gender. (Though it is not her most drastic revision of her to this end – the twist that arrives midway through the piece reveals the way in which the story has been constructed to privilege an Indigenous perspective.)
The film’s mission – broadly, to interrogate the legacy of violence that continues to shape contemporary society and policy – is a critical one, and is shared by recent Australian films including Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and even, in a more oblique way, James Vaughan’s arresting debut Friends and Strangers.
I do wonder, however, if Purcell’s message could have been more affecting, and the film more immersive, without such insistent signposting – moments in the film that often seem retrofitted to match up with a contemporary understanding of these hot button issues.
The film’s climactic expression of its feminist values entails Louisa, the sergeant’s wife and a budding journalist, heading up a miniature protest against domestic violence. Dressed in white gowns emblazoned with the words “HEAR HER”, she and her companions de ella would not look out of place next to Cara Delevingne at the 2021 Met Gala in her all-white “Peg the Patriarchy” ensemble.
(As it happens, Delevingne had unknowingly co-opted the slogan, which was trademarked by a woman of colour. Thankfully Louisa, at this point in the film, has already learned a lesson about intersectionality.)
There is great potency in Purcell’s script-flipping set-up; her take on The Drover’s Wife, in its multiple incarnations, is a stinging de-mythologisation. She needn’t have inscribed the subtext in such bold font.
The Drover’s Wife the Legend of Molly Johnson is in cinemas now.