Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) / Adventure-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for emotionally thematic material
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Brannagh, Ningali Lawford, Jason Clarke, David Gulpilil
Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenplay: Christine Olsen
Review published May 29, 2003
2002 was a pretty good year for Aussie director Phillip Noyce, who also saw his excellent film, The Quiet American, released late in the year. Although both films deal with a class of people who are being victimized and manipulated by superior forces around them, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a smaller movie, far simpler in approach and thematic elements. It has the fact that it's based on historical facts on its side, adapted from the book of the same name by Doris Pilkington, daughter of one of the girls around which the story revolves. Beautifully shot by Noyce and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Made, Liberty Heights), it is an escapist film that exposes some misguided policies of the past, and worth a peek for a bit of Australian history you may be shocked to learn existed until 1970.
The action takes place in Western Australia in 1931, where one man decides the fate of generations of aborigines in the area. It becomes trickier for this man, A.O. Neville (Brannagh. Wild Wild West), because of the half-caste children that have begun to emerge, as he feels there is no room for more than two races in Australia. He orders them to be stripped away from their mothers and taken to camps, where they are to spend their days learning to be educated in the "proper" way of things, which means speaking English and practicing Christianity. Three young sisters, aged from 8 to 14, are among the girls there, and they are determined to be reunited with their mother, enough to risk hundreds of miles in travel without much in food or shelter, and the certain whipping they will receive should they be caught.
The tale of the young girls is certainly interesting, and different than others due to the locale and era, although at its core it's a survival tale like many films based on true stories. It's a bit lean in terms of interesting developments, and certain elements of the story seem obviously embellished to make for better storytelling. While this may help the film as far as entertainment value, it does make the higher ground morality lesson a little more heavy-handed than it should have been. Obviously, you'll feel for the girls, who are cast to be as cute as can be, and of course root for them to make it all the way to be reunited. However, the real interest in the story comes in learning of the prevailing attitudes of the white population of Australia, in particular Neville's feelings that what he is doing is right and just, and the aboriginal people just don't know he is there to help them. This makes him a complicated villain, one who does things for what he truly believes are noble reasons, although he is clearly doing some morally depraved things with his power, in fact, bordering on genocide.
Alas, so little is explored in this area, leaving us to the tale of the three girls and how they managed to eat and sleep, and even though it's a short film at around 90 minutes, there is little else to the story but the long trek and how they managed to stay alive. Luckily, the scenery is well-shot, and the score by Peter Gabriel (Strange Days, Virtuosity) is nicely suited to the scenery, so that if the tale feels padded, it's not such a bad trip after all. The ending of the film gives you a history lesson in the laws of the land, but leaves you wondering more about what happened to some of the characters afterward. (I would go into more detail, but don't wish to spoil the film for those who haven't seen it.)
Rabbit-Proof Fence is a nice, small film with good performances and engaging direction, worth the trip for those who love fact-based historical dramas with lots of sweeping shots of the landscape, and who are more interested in the little personal stories than the great historical ones found in all the text books.
©2003 Vince Leo