Casting a measured gaze on a shameful chapter of
Australian history, ''Rabbit-Proof Fence'' makes no bones
about who is right and wrong in its devastating portrayal of
that country's disgraceful treatment of its Aborginal
population for much of the last century. Although the movie,
adapted from a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, pushes
emotional buttons and simplifies its true story to give it the
clean narrative sweep of an extended folk ballad, it never
goes dramatically overboard.
On the side of right are the Australian Aborigines whose
families were torn apart by a government policy of forcibly
removing children of mixed race from their Outback communities
and transporting them to settlement camps hundreds of miles
away. Once in the camps, they were forbidden to speak their
native language and were indoctrinated into the religion and
customs of the dominant white culture. Eventually they were
integrated into the general population as domestic servants
and farm laborers.
On the side of wrong is the Australian government, which,
for more than half a century (from 1905 to 1971) carried out
this appalling program of legalized kidnapping. ''Rabbit-Proof
Fence'' is set in 1931, when the executor of that policy was
A. O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), a man so intransigently
certain of its ultimate benefit to everyone involved that he
makes Rudyard Kipling seem benign.
The chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in
1931 when malignant racial theories were in ascendancy
throughout the world, Neville is the legal guardian of all
Aboriginal people in that state. Convinced that the Aborigines
are dying out, he is committed to hastening their
disappearance by enforcing a law that forbids children of
mixed marriages to marry full-blooded Aborigines. In one
scene, Neville smugly pulls out a chart that supposedly proves
how, in three generations after an interracial marriage, all
Aboriginal characteristics have disappeared in the offspring.
Christine Olsen's subtle but biting screenplay and Mr.
Branagh's understated performance refrain from portraying
Neville as an overtly fiendish monster. As he executes
decisions that are all taken in a spirit of benign
paternalism, he comes across as the apotheosis of the kind of
blind racism that takes for granted the superiority of white
This sturdy, touching movie, directed by Phillip Noyce, who
also oversaw ''The Quiet American,'' personalizes this
historical outrage by telling the story of three young girls
who escape from a settlement and set out to make the
1,200-mile trek back home on foot. The events are based on the
experiences of Ms. Garimara's mother, Molly (Everlyn Sampi),
who is 14 at the time of the movie; her 8-year-old sister
Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie
(Laura Monaghan). All three are mixed-race children fathered
by itinerant white fence workers.
The story begins in the tiny depot of Jigalog in
northwestern Australia on the edge of the Gibson Desert.
Coursing through this Aboriginal community is a rabbit-proof
fence. Built to keep the country's rabbits on one side and its
pasture land on the other, it spans the entire length of
Australia from north to south.
Hearing that the three girls are running wild in Jigalog,
Neville authorizes their removal to the Moore River Native
Settlement 1,200 miles away. But when his deputy, Constable
Riggs (Jason Clarke), drives to Jigalog to pick them up, he
must overcome the resistance of the girls' mothers from whose
arms they are forcibly wrested. The Moore Settlement resembles
a spartan rural orphanage with dormitory housing and strict
regimentation. When children try to escape, they are retrieved
by Moodoo (David Gulpilil), an experienced black tracker, and
punished with solitary confinement.
For Molly, who bridles at the daily humiliation, the final
straw comes when the girls are told they have no mothers. One
day while the other children are in church, she coaxes Daisy
and Gracie to flee with her into the woods. The bulk of the
movie follows them on a three-month trek through forest, field
and desert, during much of which they use the rabbit-proof
fence to guide them home. As the news of their remarkable
elusiveness reaches Jigalog, Molly and Daisy's mother, Maude
(Ningali Lawford), and their grandmother, Frinda (Myarn
Lawford), hold a vigil in which they chant and send signals by
tapping on the fence.
If ''Rabbit-Proof Fence,'' which opens today in Manhattan
and Los Angeles, has the upbeat tone and deliberate pace of a
ballad, Molly is its radiant folk heroine. Profoundly
intuitive, indomitably courageous, endowed with superhuman
resilience, she is the stuff of legend. And as played by Ms.
Sampi, she emits a steady glow even in moments of desperation.
The story could easily have been treated as a brutally
suspenseful manhunt in which the girls survive any number of
narrow escapes from their pursuers. But in Mr. Noyce's hands
their journey is touched with enchantment, and the movie
becomes a paean to the beauty of the Australian countryside
and the decency of most of the common people who aid the
Under Molly's resourceful guidance, the girls are able to
find enough food and water to keep them going. If their
continued well-being seems unreal, that's part of the movie's
myth-making strategy. As the story jumps back and forth
between their journey and the frustrated attempts to capture
them, at moments it almost feels like a jaunty game of hide
But the spic-and-span wholesomeness of ''Rabbit-Proof
Fence'' ultimately makes its sting all the sharper. Its
portrait of people who see themselves as decent,
self-righteously trying to eradicate another culture, has the
impact of a swift, hard slap in the face.
''Rabbit-Proof Fence'' is rated PG (Parental guidance
suggested). Its scenes of kidnapping could upset young
Phillip Noyce; written by Christine Olsen, based on the book
by Doris Pilkington Garimara; director of photography,
Christopher Doyle; edited by John Scott and Veronika Jenet;
music by Peter Gabriel; production designer, Roger Ford;
produced by Mr. Noyce, Ms. Olsen and John Winter; released by
Miramax Films. Running time: 95 minutes. This film is rated
WITH: Everlyn Sampi (Molly), Tianna Sansbury
(Daisy), Laura Monaghan (Gracie), David Gulpilil (Moodoo),
Ningali Lawford (Molly's mother), Myarn Lawford (Molly's
grandmother), Deborah Mailman (Mavis), Jason Clarke (Constable
Riggs) and Kenneth Branagh (Mr. Neville).
Published: 11 - 29 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section
E , Column 5 , Page 8