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Rabbit-Proof Fence: Bad fences, bad neighbours

2.5 out of 4 stars


Rabbit-Proof Fence

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Written by Christine Olsen

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Starring Everlyn Sampi and Kenneth Branagh

Classification: PG

Rating: **½

In 1931, three Australian girls, sisters Molly and Daisy Craig and their cousin, Gracie, of mixed white and Aboriginal parents, were abducted from their mother by the police. They were transported, partly in a cage, almost 2,000 kilometres to a residential school to be trained as domestics for white people.

Rather than the exception, their abduction was government policy at the time (from the turn of the century until the early 1970s) in an aggressive attempt to avoid a "third race" forming. What made these three girls' story unusual is they didn't accept their fates, and chose to walk back home.

The story (adapted from a book by Molly's daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara) has the elements of an epic poem -- abduction, escape, a perilous journey across the nation that traces the primal wound of colonialization. Regrettably, the movie, directed by Phillip Noyce, is commonplace, as an extraordinary story is reduced to a predictable, heart-tugging issue-movie-of-the-week. For his return to Australian independent roots after more than a decade in Hollywood ( Patriot Games, The Saint and The Bone Collector),Noyce has opted for polemics rather than poetry, though the movie's politics are unlikely to agitate anyone except those who stand squarely behind racism and stealing children.

There's enough that works here that suggests the better movie that might have been made. The casting of non-professional Aboriginal child actors (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan) is the most astute. Each is carefully differentiated -- Molly, tough and wary; the baby, Daisy; and Gracie, the doubter. Sampi, who plays Molly, carries the film, often by a calculated refusal to react to what's being said or done to her. We don't know what's going on in Molly's head because she's savvy enough to give nothing away. She meets everyone with the same wary gaze, and the occasional pertinent question. By not indicating her emotional reactions, her performance allows the audience to read volumes into her solemn gaze.

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At the other extreme, we have Kenneth Branagh as the bureaucrat, A.O. Neville, known as Mr. Devil to the Aborigines he oversees. Branagh leaves nothing to chance. Tight-lipped and unctuous, he's a one-dimensional figure who functions in the movie solely as the incarnation of paternalistic racism. A little of this "In spite of himself, the native must be helped" goes a long way, and by the time he starts pulling out genetic charts, he reminds us too much that he also plays a blowhard headmaster to Harry Potter, leading a different trio of children who dare to break the rules.

The editing of the scenes at the residential school has the metronomic regularity of a security cam, as we cut from stern teachers to wide-eyed girls and back again. (The idea seems to be that school life is intensely regimented; the effect is that the sequence is boring.) This school episode culminates in a crude, horror-movie point-of-view shot when Molly is forced to approach the prim Mr. Neville, who wants to check her complexion on her back, to assess her level of whiteness.

Once the film gets moving, the central metaphor of the title proves extremely useful. The fence, the longest in the world, was built to keep the rabbits away from the farmland, to separate the wild from the civilized. The barrier mirrors the terror of miscegenation. The fence, which Molly sees outside her home, and later recognizes near the school, becomes a benign force, her guide for going home. It also allows the movie one of the few narrative shocks, when she discovers there is more than one rabbit-proof fence criss-crossing the country.

The girls' indomitable determination, and their affinity for the hard landscape of elemental desert and badlands, is the key to the movie's poetic appeal. Unlike their white hunters, they are never in a wilderness; they are at home. Unluckily for them, that same familiarity is also available to their own personal Tommy Lee Jones, a relentless Aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) who starred in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout in 1971).

Shot by Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-wai's genius cinematographer), the days are fiercely overlit, the nights a deep azure blue, and we have a sense of the country's strange, hard beauty. What's missing is any sense of time. This is the kind of movie where, for once, you find yourself wanting more landscape. The girls run and walk through the stark desert, accompanied by a Peter Gabriel score. They meet the occasional white person or Aborigine who provide food and directions, and who seem remarkably unconcerned that children in rags are walking across the country.

When, after a few scenes cutting back and forth between the girls and their hunters, Neville announces at one point that the children have been lost for a month, it does not seem credible.

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Not until the final shot does Noyce rise up to the potential of the history: Two grandmothers, the real-life Molly and Daisy, seven decades later, totter toward a handheld camera. There's a sudden shiver of recognition, that, my God, these people really lived this. ... A visit to the Outback. R14

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