The powerful Outback Western is set for an Aug. 19 theatrical and digital release.
There is a scene early in The Legend of Molly Johnson that makes it abundantly clear that the title character — portrayed by writer-director Leah Purcell — is not to be trifled with. Confronting an unwelcomed visitor at her remote home, she raises her shotgun and issues a warning: “I’ll shoot you where you stand, and I’ll bury you where you fall.”
As I noted when I reviewed the film for Variety last year at the SXSW Festival in Austin: “Purcell delivers the line with such assurance and authority that, had John Wayne or Charles Bronson been on the receiving end of that threat, they likely would have changed their minds and raised their hands. Never mind that Molly is extremely pregnant, unprotected by her absent husband — a drover who’s too far away from their homestead for months at a time — and fending for herself at their isolated shanty in the Snowy Mountains region of New South Wales. Right from the start of The Legend of Molly Johnson, an exceptionally compelling Outback Western, there is little doubt that it will take more than a sudden appearance of an escaped Aboriginal convict (and possible mass murderer) to shake her resolve or break her spirit.”
Inspired by the classic 1892 short story “The Drover’s Wife” by Australian author Henry Lawson, The Legend of Molly Johnson — which will open in select theaters and on digital platforms Aug. 19 — is propelled by the chance interaction between Molly and Yadaka (Rob Collins), a shackled Aboriginal fugitive who appears on her property at what turns out to be a most propitious time for her. While an unlikely friendship begins to form between them, secrets unravel about her true identity. Meanwhile, Sgt. Nate Klintoff (Sam Reid), newly assigned to enforce British law in the nearby rough-and-tumble Everton Outpost, realizes Molly’s husband is missing, and sends his constable to investigate. Nothing good comes of this.
Leah Purcell recently joined me in the C&I Studio to talk about her remarkable film. And, yes, about what it’s like to play such a badass.
Leah Purcell’s Official Introduction to The Legend of Molly Johnson
The Legend of Molly Johnson film is based on my personal experience as a fair-skinned, Aboriginal woman who grew up in a small country town and now lives in the city. I’m a woman brought up by storytellers, within a culture where the tradition of storytelling is passed down and our histories are heard from the Black experience, not from white-washed history books.
As an Aboriginal creator, expressing what it means to be black within today’s world through my work in film, television and theatre is vitally important to me. Our traditions can be destroyed, and our languages lost but our stories are ours, and ours to tell. My stories have black influences and I incorporate my own lived experience – of Stolen Generations, Mission oppression and small town racism and bias mentality, both black and white – and those of my ancestors. These are stories rarely considered. And they deserve consideration. I believe it is vitally important that our stories are told by us, for us for all to see and connect with. If I, as an Aboriginal storyteller, can’t tell my ancestors’ stories truthfully, then who can?
Through my work, I seek to shine a light on the truth of our Australian Aboriginal population. The characters I bring to the screen are not stereotypical, ‘traditional looking’ Australian Aboriginals and this is a deliberate choice to show both my own people and the wider community that we are as diverse in looks as we are in ways. Our storytelling lives in us still. And through the medium of film they will live long and for all.
The film is a contemporary form of Dreaming, it’s a journey belonging to many but all leading to Molly Johnson. This Dreaming is a form of identity and cultural practice of ancient traditions. Through The Legend of Molly Johnson, this passing down of story is evident and deliberate throughout the film.
“Songlines” are another element of storytelling and I have brought this through the melodics in the contemporary composition of the music you will hear throughout the film. I was excited by the feminine quality that emerged from the score. I and the composer, Salliana Seven Campbell were drawn to a more produced melodic composition and we are influenced by our backgrounds of live music and performing in bands. I am extremely excited by the music – all instruments are played live for the recording by Salliana. I’m also proud of the sound design, it lends itself to the fable quality in the film and plays a significant part in weaving all of the storytelling layers found in the film.
I have had this story embedded in me for 42 years. My mother would read and recite Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife short story to me from when I was five years old. I connected to the story deeply as I saw myself as the oldest son of the drover’s wife. I would stop my mother from telling the end of the story and I’d finish it, saying to her the famous last line, ‘Ma, I won’t never go a drovin’.’
At my film’s core is a mother who will do anything for her children and a young boy who will stand by his mother, no matter what. It’s about love, protection, identity and the survival of family with a soul of ancient proportions. The story is intimate and also has an epic feel. It is unique in having as its protagonist an Aboriginal woman.
It’s a story rich in themes and the mythology of generational Aboriginal storytelling, which is exciting for me to bring to film. It might be the first attempt of consciously structuring a film to attempt this ancient practice: the oral tradition of passing on knowledge through story.
I chose the genre (Western drama) because it allowed me to depict the true nature of 1893 and to push the truth to its extreme in a deeply felt and cinematic way. This genre allows me the freedom to go there and I feel it is the most powerful way to tell this story.