Leah Purcell is the writer, director, and star of The Legend of Molly Johnson, playing a woman who must protect herself and her children from the harsh hazards of life in the 1890s Australian bush. While this is Purcell’s first narrative feature film as writer/director, it’s not her first time playing this character or telling this story – she previously adapted it (from Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife) as a stage play in which she starred, and then as a novel. Purcell’s project here is revisionist on a storytelling level, giving a name and specific Aboriginal ethnicity to a previously more general and archetypal protagonist, while also bringing a personal and authentically historical context to a genre that has often lacked those qualities. Purcell draws on her family history as a mixed-race Aboriginal Australian woman and adds dimensions to an archetypal story.
The performances are strong across the board in this film, but Purcell’s lead performance proves to be the main draw. Depicting a tough, hardscrabble character is still not an opportunity afforded to a lot of women in westerns, but imbuing that type of character with multifaceted humanity beyond just being simply thick-skinned feels even rarer. Purcell lets us in on Molly Johnson’s feelings of unease, fear, and grief as she is forced to face various tragedies and injustices throughout the film, while still maintaining a sense of admirable fortitude. The storytelling sometimes feels obvious or drawn-out, but the lead performance helps to paper over some of those issues by lending some nuance to the table.
The other impressive performer here is Rob Collins, playing the role of Yadaka, the wounded Aboriginal man-on-the-run who hides out on Molly’s property and offers her the previously unknown truth of her heritage as they connect throughout the film. Collins is playing a character who is often written even more broadly, as a warm-hearted and generous person with few perceivable flaws, and largely defined by the persecution he faces due to his race and cultural background. Collins uses these aspects as a starting point and manages to imbue Yadaka with a lot of personality in his performance choices, lending his scenes a sense of dramatic buoyancy that some other sections of the film are missing. A series of scenes where he interacts with Molly’s young son Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts) are highly engaging and provide a dose of charm in a sometimes dour film.
Less engaging is a subplot, lent perhaps too much screentime over the course of the film, involving a white Sergeant taking on policing duties in the nearby town, and his activist-writer wife who is attempting to mount a movement against domestic violence. These characters are realistically frustrating, but this perceptive quality in how they’re characterized feels mostly unused by the actual story. The Sergeant himself feels like an underbaked antagonist who doesn’t get any kind of substantial arc despite featuring in many scenes by himself, while his wife’s storyline is sincere but doesn’t fully convince. These characters getting such a focus feels like a dilution of the sometimes-potent mood the film achieves in its best scenes; they provide a useful contrast to more socially privileged characters, but the film expects the audience to care about them without putting in enough work to make them compelling.
Despite some uneven storytelling choices, Purcell’s direction is often versatile and reasonably ambitious, making for a film that always feels reasonably compelling even when it undercuts itself. Some intercutting between past and present events goes a long way toward adding some tension to a fairly obvious story and underlines the emotional states of the characters in a way that helps with connecting to them (especially Molly herself). The gorgeous and sometimes inhospitable Australian landscape is on full display to great effect, and despite a majority of the film taking place in one location, enough action is featured that the film never feels stage-bound despite its partial origins as a play. The nighttime scenes are dim and hard to parse visually at certain moments, but never to an extent that impacts the story– a realistic, eerie lack of light feels appropriate for the type of secluded rural environment featured in the film.
The other truly notable, mostly-successful aspect on display in the film is the score, written by Salliana Seven Campbell. This is an eclectic and always engaging selection of music, featuring the kind of folk and bluegrass-esque sounds you might expect from a western score, along with moody and emotive piano pieces to underscore the drama and tragedy of the piece. This is a soundtrack that feels fresh and dynamic, and Campbell should absolutely find herself in demand to score more films as a result of this work. There are a few select moments where her music feels misapplied in the film itself, most dramatic moments in the second half that may have worked better with a more subtle underlying score, or no music at all. All the same, I came away from the film impressed with her work, and immediately wanted to listen to the score on its own.
The Legend of Molly Johnson is a solidly made film from start to end, occasionally a truly intriguing one, and undeniably a groundbreaking achievement for Purcell, who has now found success telling the same story in three different mediums. Her mixture of the personal with the historical is so fascinating to me in theory, and that may contribute to my feeling that in practice the film is sometimes missing the extra layers or truly judicious focus it would need to be a complete masterpiece. The pacing is uneven, not all characters are equally compelling, and not every plot development is explored with depth. Thankfully, the lead performances are compelling enough, and the direction creative enough, to still result in an engaging drama. It’s exciting to see a creator have such free reign to explore the dynamics of their heritage and history in film like this, and I hope to see more films of this type in the future.
The Legend of Molly Johnson is available in limited theaters and digital platforms now. Watch the trailer below.