starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpilil
screenplay by Christine Olsen, based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington
directed by Phillip Noyce
by Walter Chaw A very small story set on a very large stage, Phillip Noyce's affecting Rabbit-Proof Fence is perhaps the most visually beautiful film of the director's career, proving between this and his other movie from this year, the Graham Greene adaptation The Quiet American, that not only is it possible to go home again (as in Noyce to Australia) but also that it's often wise. Shot on a minimal budget (in the six-million dollar range) with a cast of largely non-professional actors (Kenneth Branagh the main exception), the picture is a tremendous hit among the self-congratulatory film festival/arthouse crowd, who, after all, like to feel as though they're applauding the right things.
Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and Gracie (Laurie Monaghan) are Aboriginal girls (ranging in age from about 9 to 14) who, in 1931 Australia, are kidnapped by legal mandate from their homes in order to be re-educated as domestic servants and, eventually is the hope, bred out by the colonial whites. Chief Protector of the Aborigines A.O Neville (Branagh) feels this is the right thing: his crime isn't hate, necessarily, but the kind of entrenched ignorance that one day becomes hate. At first opportunity, the three girls escape the camp and begin a 1,500-mile walk back to their homelands with only a rabbit-proof fence (that splits the continent into three parts in an effort to contain feral bunnies) as their navigator.
Based on the memoirs of Doris Pilkington (Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence), the daughter of Molly, Rabbit-Proof Fence takes place during a particularly shameful period in Australia's history while shedding little light on the source of the attitudes and traditions that shaped that country's integration laws. (An ongoing debate "down under," as evidenced by the tremendous symbolic importance of Olympian (and Aborigine) Cathy Freeman lighting the torch during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.) The picture is essentially about the ingenuity and dogged determination of resourceful Molly as she outwits a tracker (brilliantly played by David Gulpilil), and about the thin-lipped determination of Neville (called "devil" by the Aborigine girls in isolation) to "save" the native population from itself.
Looking, feeling, and sounding (with a score by Peter Gabriel that reminds of Maurice Jarre's work on Aussie Peter Weir's films The Year of Living Dangerously and Witness) like the classic Australian cinema of the 1970s, the piece regardless is indicated with a lightness at its core. It is an uplifting story of overcoming a wrong, no question, but its history is as scant as its ultimate message. It has nothing more to say than what the little engine that could might have to say, providing an almost tentative invitation to engage in a discussion about what happened in Australia's government in that period (lasting until less than thirty years ago, shockingly) and no more. Rabbit-Proof Fence is a great story told well, but with issues as large and as vital as those broached by the picture, there remains the hint of frustration that it wasn't something more than a meek opening salvo to a greater conflagration. Originally published: November 27, 2002.