Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

At one point in history, indigenous populations around the globe were evolving slowly and happily, whether in North America, South America, Africa, or Australia. Then, spearheaded by a wave of intrepid explorers, came the Europeans, spreading out across the world like a plague of locusts. Whether a case of social Darwinism or unchecked Imperialist aggression, it didn't take long before the White Man had conquered those lands where they had any interest in establishing a settlement. While the backgrounds of those going to Australia and America were vastly different, the results were similar: native populations diminished and oppressed, then reduced to second-class citizens in the re-shaped lands that were once theirs.

In 1931 Australia, it is the official policy of the government, as determined by the Chief Protector of the Aborigine Populace, Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), that all "half-caste" Aborigine children (the offspring of a white parent and an Aborigine parent) are to be taken from their families and raised in orphanages where they can be civilized with the intention of marrying them to a white person or grooming them to be a domestic servant. To Neville and those like him, this policy – separating a child from his or her family – does not seem cruel or inhuman. On the contrary, Neville states (and believes) that "in spite of himself, the native must be helped."

In the small village of Jigalong, three half-caste children - sisters Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who is 14 years old, and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), who is eight, and their cousin, 10-year old Gracie (Laura Monaghan) – are taken from their mothers to live in the orphanage at Moore River, more than 1200 miles away from their home. There, they will learn the path of "duty, service, and responsibility" that every good Christian woman should adhere to. Except that Molly, Daisy, and Gracie are not like the other girls at Moore River, and, when an opportunity presents itself, they escape. Pursued by an Aborigine tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil), and facing a seemingly impossible trek, they nevertheless press on, finding the rabbit-proof fence that stretches north-south across nearly all of the Australian continent and following it as a means to return to Jigalong.

Australian director Phillip Noyce, who may be best known to North American movie-goers for his big-budget thrillers, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, presents a powerful tale of courage and the indomitable quality of the human spirit. The film is based on the novel "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence" by Doris Pilkington, which tells the true-life story of her mother, Molly. Although the social injustice that led to Australia's "Stolen Generations" is very much in the forefront of Rabbit-Proof Fence, we are drawn into the cinematic tapestry by the real and immediate plight of the children. They are our guides through this political nightmare. Rabbit-Proof Fence eventually becomes a kind of road picture, with the girls making their way north and meeting all sorts of people along the way – some who help, some who hinder. There's also an element of danger, with Moodoo doggedly in pursuit and the police closing in. But Molly is smart, often outthinking or outguessing everyone, and occasionally aided by a bit of blind chance.

The three neophyte actresses playing the children, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan, are all excellent, with Sampi in particular standing out. Her performance as Molly is unaffected and memorable. We never once see defeat in her eyes – only determination and defiance. Sampi makes us believe that if anyone can do the impossible, it is Molly. David Gulpilil, who many may remember from Walkabout (or, failing that, Crocodile Dundee), has very little dialogue, so he lets his eyes and expressions speak for him. It doesn't take long for us to recognize that, although he is hunting the girls, a part of him exults every time they slip through his fingers. Finally, there's Kenneth Branagh, who plays the part of the villain with a charm and sincerity that is chilling. Mr. Neville is not evil personified – he is just horribly misguided. And that causes him to be more frightening than even the most over-the-top motion picture psychopath. Branagh's low-key approach makes this the most insidiously terrifying individual he has ever portrayed.

There is a great deal of craft evident in the way Rabbit-Proof Fence was put together. The music, an adaptation of Aboriginal melodies by Peter Gabriel, is haunting and singularly effective. The camerawork is such that it never allows the beauty of the Australian outback to eclipse the human element – an impressive feat when considering how glorious the countryside is. Under the hands of some directors, a film like this could easily turn into a travelogue; as developed by Noyce, it is an exploration of the heart and soul. And, at an economical 94 minutes, Rabbit-Proof Fence trims all the fat and tells its heartfelt and stirring story. This is one of 2002's most memorable imports.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia, 2002)

Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2002
Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2002-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1