True story adventure films always seem to affect me on a gut-level, and Phillip Noyce’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence” (IMDb listing) is no exception. The film is an eye-opening journey into a dark corner of Australian history that few know about, and excels in that wondrous "I cannot believe this actually happened" school of filmmaking.
The year is 1931, and new Australian law mandates that all "half-caste" - half Caucasian, half Aboriginal - children are to be forcibly removed from their families, and sent, under strict orders from the chief "protector" of the Aborigines, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), to far away settlements in order to keep the land white and proud (a practice that, rather shockingly, only ceased in 1970). For most of the children, this change is eventually, and sadly, accepted. But for 14-year-old Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), and her two younger sisters Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Mongahan), this new way of life will not do. The three escape from their western Australian settlement, and make an arduous 2,400 kilometer journey, on foot, back to their home to reunite with their mother. Their guide is a rabbit-proof fence, the longest in the world. The fence is meant to keep the rabbits out of the farmlands of the country, but now it serves as a wire mesh compass for Molly as she tries to navigate the way back.
After spending the last 12 years sucking from the teat of Hollywood, director Phillip Noyce comes roaring back from his homeland with "Rabbit-Proof Fence." Noyce's la-la land output has varied from the accomplished (1997's "The Saint," 1992's "Patriot Games") to the truly awful (1999's "The Bone Collector"), but nothing he's done has captured the attention of the film world like his breakthrough 1989 thriller, "Dead Calm." Returning to his Aussie filmmaking roots, Noyce's "Fence" reinvigorates the filmmaker, pushing him to confront his own country's dark past, and taking away the flamboyance and abundance of big-budget storytelling that numbed his directing instincts.
"Rabbit-Proof Fence" is raw and steadfast. It's also, in the face of the mounting dread and horror of the story, unwaveringly beautiful in its creation and revelations. Noyce doesn't double-dip his emotional payoffs, allowing instead for a spare, neatly controlled atmosphere. It helps to have gorgeous outback locations at his disposal, dustily rendered by cinematographer Christopher Doyle (1998's "Psycho"). And Peter Gabriel's quiet, pulsing score intertwines with the walk perfectly. But at the core of this film is the amazing journey, with Noyce shrewdly allowing the film to lead with its tale, and not by its artifice. Not since "Dead Calm" has Noyce made a film so pure in its intentions, and so successful in its results.
The success of "Rabbit-Proof Fence" depends on child actors who must convey adult determination, subtle fragility, and, at the end, a childlike release of joy. Noyce has found this in the three leads, who, without the benefit of much dialog or experience (it's the screen debut for all) give exceedingly accomplished performances richly detailing the mental as well as physical hell of the trek. Of special note is Everlyn Sampi's performance, which is a finely tuned composition of distrust and determination. There isn't a skipped beat among the three of them. Kenneth Branagh adds nicely to the mix with an oily, decidedly Aryan take on Mr. Neville. Basically the "bad guy” of the film, Branagh never overplays his hand, creating a portrait of a man who really did think he was doing the right thing with his ethnic cleansing.
With all the Disney and other family entertainment crudding up the output this holiday season, here's a perfect family film that suggests perseverance pays off, that hope is a positive thing, and clearly demonstrates that in an increasingly cynical world, there are still amazing stories to be told.
Filmfodder Grade: A-