Movie Review: Rabbit-Proof Fence
By Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Film portrayals of native populations be they Aboriginal Australians or Native Americans have been spotty at best. For the longest time, it seemed native cultures fit into two categories: heartless savages or wise, mystical shamans. The former was the gutter, the latter an apologist's pedestal.
Few filmmakers have thought to portray them as human beings.
Filmmaker Phillip Noyce ("Patriot Games" and "The Quiet American") seems conscious of this fact in "Rabbit-Proof Fence," the story of two "half-caste" Aboriginal sisters' and a cousin's 1931 flight from internment schools to their families in northern Australia 1,200 miles away.
During this time, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) had complete domain over these often nomadic tribes as chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia. "In spite of himself, the native must be helped," Neville tells a room of society ladies in the beginning of the film. Over a slideshow lecture, he demonstrates how Aboriginal traits can eventually be "bred out" through simple genetics but what to do with an "unwanted third race" of half-white children? The compassionate solution, Neville believed, was to introduce them into society as house servants and lower-class workers. First, of course, they'd have to be trained in special Australian schools.
And so, between 1905 and 1971, the Australian government removed children of "mixed-race" parentage from their families and shipped them to far-off boarding schools often with force.
When 14-year-old Molly (the superb Everlyn Sampi), 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) arrive at Moore River Native Settlement, they find themselves living in large dormitories with poor sanitation. All students are forced to speak English, and any attempt at escape is met with severe punishment.
Instead of conforming, they decide to leave and walk more than 1,000 miles home without food and with little direction. Although a relatively straightforward story, Noyce keeps tension high as the girls outsmart and avoid their various trackers. Performances by the three young actors are well regulated and laconic, but we come to know them better as their journey unfolds. In spots, the slow, deliberate pacing may try the patience of some, and the character arcs only become apparent in a postscript voiceover. A simple narrative doesn't lead to many surprises, but the sheer tenacity of Noyce's characters carries the narrative. An ambient soundtrack by Peter Gabriel heightens emotional conflicts, filling in the space between the few odd lines of dialogue between the girls.
In this road movie without a road, Noyce's taut storytelling and Christopher Doyle's near-ethereal cinematography tie character to landscape, setting vast, desolate vistas against a futile, 1,500-mile "rabbit-proof fence" meant to preserve agriculture. Symbolic of cultural vanity, the fence also represents bureaucracy disconnected from its own people.
Cleverly, Noyce doesn't depict Neville as a fork-tailed demon. That would have been too easy and dishonest. Branagh instead plays Neville within his cultural context, as a man who sees himself as taming an "uncivilized" people, bringing them into an occupying culture that's leaving them behind. "Duty, service and responsibility are our watchwords" he tells little Molly and he believes it. He isn't an outwardly cruel monster, just a well-meaning bureaucrat with no institutional budget and even less cultural insight.
But he's still human, still worthy of respect, and Noyce treats him as such. In fact, all of the film's characters are so well drawn, so human, that even in the harsh light of history, it remains difficult to understand how Australia allowed such inhumanity to become institutional, mechanized and accepted.
Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Christine Olsen, based on the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara; photographed by Christopher Doyle; edited by John Scott and Veronika Jenet; music by Peter Gabriel; produced by Phillip Noyce and Christine Olsen. A Miramax Films release; opened Wednesday. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: PG (emotional thematic material).
Molly Everlyn Sampi
Daisy Tianna Sansbury
Gracie Laura Monaghan
Moodoo David Gulpilil
Mr. Neville Kenneth Branagh