Rabbit-Proof Fence
directed by Phillip Noyce
(Miramax, 2002)

For 25 years, A.O. Neville was the protector of Australia's aboriginal population. He protected them by making sure they weren't rationed more than one pair of shoes a year, and he ruled on who could marry whom. But perhaps his most lasting effort involved his solution to the "problem" of "half-castes," the children of mixed-race liaisons in the Australian Outback.

Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi) is one of those so-called "problems." She lives in the Outback with her mother (Ningali Lawford), grandmother (Myarn Lawford), sister Daisy (Tianna Sunsbury) and cousin Gracie (Laura Monagham). Oddly enough, however, she doesn't seem to have a problem in the world, not when she's tracking game with her mother and grandmother or going to the store in Jigalong to get their monthly ration.

Her only real problem seems to be with the local authorities, who have orders from Neville to pick up her and her sister and cousin and pack them off to a re-education camp, Moore River, many hundreds of miles away.

It's there that Neville (Kenneth Branagh) and the camp director, Mr. Neal (Garry McDonald), plan to prepare Molly, Daisy and Gracie for their new lives as part of the larger Australian community. They'll be trained for domestic work -- and marriage to white men, because, as Neville points out with a magic lantern show early in the film, after three "crossings" (half-caste, quadroon, octoroon), white blood will "infiltrate" half-caste blood, and the "problem" will be solved.

But Rabbit-Proof Fence, which is based on a true story written by Molly's daughter, isn't really about Mr. Neville's attempts at social engineering or even the fence itself. It's about Molly's desire to stay in the land she loves with the people she loves -- and the great lengths she'll go to to get there.

Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear & Present Danger) did many things right and at least one thing wrong in bringing Molly's story to the big screen.

On the down side, his Neville is so one-dimensional that every word he speaks sounds like bad propaganda -- designed to make him a kind of cross between Mengele and Eichman, only less open to reason. And Branagh doesn't help things, playing him with a stiff upper lip that seems to extend to the rest of his body.

On the positive side, Noyce captures the indestructible spirit of a child who knows in her heart what is right and will let nothing get between her and it. The scenes of Molly, Gracie and Daisy dragging themselves through hundreds of miles of Australian wilderness, eluding Moore River's tracker (David Gulpilil) and taking food and assistance from friendly strangers and potential betrayers are priceless.

Each one is seen through Molly's eyes -- and large, smoldering and piercing eyes they are. Noyce rejected the idea of using professional child actors to portray the Aboriginals of Rabbit-Proof Fence, opting instead for three children who'd never been in a movie.

The result is riveting: the children are real in ways few child actors ever are, and the story becomes as poignant as it is political. Add to that the images of personal humiliation Noyce conjures up -- Molly, Daisy and Gracie riding to the camp in a cage in railroad baggage car, or the Moore River girls singing "Swanee River" to Neville and Neal during a camp visit -- plus the visual effect of the broad sweeping Outback landscapes that Noyce drops his tiny figures into, and you have a film that captures your attention from the first time you set eyes on it and never lets go.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is many things: a history lesson, a diatribe against racism and social engineering, the most somber chase film you can imagine and a tale of human triumph against all odds. It's also won more awards than most films ever get nominated for. A few minutes into it you'll understand why.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 14 February 2004

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