25 Jun 2022

Leah Purcell: creating a one-woman outback Western

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 25 June 2022

Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife, an Australian classic about a mother defending the homestead from a snake, is being reimagined by Leah Purcell. 

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is the first Australian feature with an Indigenous woman writing, directing and performing the lead role.  

Purcell, of the Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri people from Queensland, tells Kim Hill she has drawn strongly from her own background to tell the story. 

Leah Purcell in The Drover's Wife

Photo: Supplied

“[The story] was very close to how me and my mother were … and my white dad wasn’t around, my mother’s Aboriginal, First Nations woman, and she was the man of the house, the woman of the house, she was my father, she was my mother, and I was like the little boy in Henry Lawson’s story, he was his mother’s protector. 

“I just knew I was just the vehicle for this story to come through.  

“My family’s DNA is throughout the story; there’s an indigenous male character in it and that’s based on my great grandfather, there’s a few scenes in the film that relate to my grandmother and her plight and the drover’s wife is I guess paying homage to my mother in the strength in that character.” 

She also pays homage to her great grandfather, a white man who tried to save his children from being taken because they were “mixed blood”, by renaming the character Tommy to Danny. 

Leah Purcell

Photo: supplied

“I’ve got other uncles of course that are wonderful, non-indigenous men, that love their black wives, their black children but in those times it was hard. And I guess because my relationship with my father was a love-hate relationship, it really filled my soul when I knew that that man tried to save his children.” 

In parallel with the story, her mother was a drover too, but she lived a tough life trying to navigate two worlds, Purcell says. 

"She was in a relationship where it wasn’t a proper relationship with a man that wasn’t around, he would call in, but she had six kids to him, it was loveless. And she did turn to the bottle.  

“But she was strong, she was proud of who she was, people respected her in the town, black and white, my mother was doing reconciliation before the word became trending … and people looked up to her.  

“Being the youngest, I saw her sadness and I saw why she turned to the drink, so I never judged her. I just knew that I was there to be her protector.” 

A heavy theme throughout is domestic violence – a situation she herself had to escape from as a teenage mother in the early ‘80s, a time when violence was normalised in rural areas, she says. 

“I’d been dealing with that sort of lifestyle since I was 10 or what I could remember younger even and I didn’t want it anymore and I didn’t want it for my daughter.” 

The former Wentworth actress says she wants this story to empower women and open parents’ eyes to the future of their daughters. 

“Three women a week are dying in Australia, at the hands of the ones they love.  

“So I want to empower the women. Molly Johnson was like me mate, she just packed a bit of a bag, had her kids and off she went and that’s what she does in that wagon.  

“But I wanted also hope; it’s about a mother’s love, it’s about survival ... Majority of mothers want the best outcome for their children, so Molly Johnson does what she has to do for her children. 

“So yes, there’s some brutality in the piece but it’s not there just because, it’s the truth of that time. 

"I placed it in 1893, and yet here we are in 2022, and we still have a domestic violence epidemic running rampant around the country.”  

Her mother died when she was 18, but later on she eventually reconciled with her father and put her demons to sleep, she says. 

“That just freed me and things started to happen and I had energy within me and there was no hatred, I wasn’t fighting with it or against it anymore and I felt at peace. 

“I wouldn’t change the way I was brought up, I wouldn’t change my make up, if I never had that upbringing I don’t think I’d be the person who I am so I’m very grateful for that.” 

Last year, Purcell was made a Member of the Order of Australia for "significant service to the performing arts, to First Nations youth and culture, and to women". 

This isn’t her first take on the story, having also done a play and novel based on The Drover’s Wife as well. But she says she is still brimming with new ideas for adaptations of the story and hopes for a refreshing series on it in the next two years. 

The film opens the Māoriland Film Festival in Ōtaki on 29 June. In September, Leah Purcell will take up the Māoriland Filmmakers’ Residency - the first of its kind in New Zealand.