Film Reviews: Wednesday February 13, 2003
Rabbit-Proof Fence
Starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Written by Christine Olsen, based on Doris Pilkington Garimara’s book. Rated PG.
Spirited Away

Three little girls have a long walk home in the inspiring Rabbit-Proof Fence.


Phillip Noyce is an Australian filmmaker whose career got off to a good start in the early 1990s with his electric thriller at sea Dead Calm and two sturdy Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Recently, though, his fortunes seemed to have slid — his last two films were the outlandish 1997 spy thriller The Saint and the dreary 1999 serial killer movie The Bone Collector. This year, lightning has struck twice for the guy, as he’s turned out two excellent movies, the Oscar-nominated The Quiet American and the relatively unheralded but scarcely less accomplished Rabbit-Proof Fence. These films, which are quite different from each other, together constitute one of the more remarkable artistic resurrections of a filmmaker in recent memory.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on a shameful chapter of Australia’s history. It began in the 19th century, with the country’s growing population of children who were of mixed white and Aboriginal parentage, known as “half-caste.” Australia’s white population feared that the half-castes would overrun them, so in 1901 the government instituted a program under which half-caste children were forcibly taken from their parents by the government and sent far away to camps. There, Christian missionaries trained them to be maids and factory workers, while punishing them for speaking their own native language instead of English. This 19th-century bit of social engineering lasted up until 1971, an unspeakable outrage whose repercussions continue to affect race relations in that country. The children reared under this program are now known as the Stolen Generations.

In 1931, three little half-caste girls (14-year-old Molly Craig, her 8-year-old sister Daisy, and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie) escaped from their camp and led authorities on a slow-motion chase across the continent. Determined to return home, they followed the world’s longest man-made structure, the barbed-wire fence in western Australia that runs from the northern coast all the way to the southern, designed to separate the country’s farmland from its huge population of garden-devouring rabbits. The girls, with occasional help from sympathetic strangers, eluded trackers and made their way on foot from Magumber, near Perth in the southwestern part of the country, back to their home community in Jigalong in the northwestern desert, a journey of some 1,500 miles. Their months-long odyssey captured the public imagination, partly because the girls’ story resonated with Australia’s national lore, which is filled with legends of explorers (mostly white) who walked great distances through the country’s interior.

The film is based on an account written by Molly Craig’s daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara, who is now a well-regarded novelist. The three lead roles are filled by Aboriginal girls: Everlyn Sampi, 13, portrays Molly, while Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan, play Daisy and Gracie respectively. (The three stars acted in the film without ever having seen a movie themselves.) They do good work, especially the quietly forceful Sampi, whose uncomplicated determination and intelligence burn through this film.

Noyce knows he has a great story and uses simple methods to tell it. While the girls trek through the spectacularly blasted landscape of the Australian outback, the director intercuts between their dangerous journey and the mission to recapture them, directed from the office of Colonial Protector A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh). Leading the effort in the field is an Aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) whose own daughter is in the camps. Noyce wisely doesn’t hurry things the way he appropriately did in his Clancy films, but patiently reflects the protracted nature of the chase in his deliberate pacing. The film’s rhythms generate their own brand of suspense; so that a car slowly approaching in the distance can look like a harbinger of doom. Though there are some scenes that might be called action sequences, when the girls come close to being captured, Noyce is less interested in set pieces than he is in building toward a single climax, an approach that is gratifyingly successful. The story’s conclusion is as uplifting as it is thoroughly unsentimental, and the look we get of the real-life 85-year-old Molly and the 79-year-old Daisy walking free through the outback is as good a final shot as the movie could have had.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is a focused piece of work, but Noyce doesn’t let us forget that the hardship and triumph of these three girls played out against a backdrop of colonial oppression and a concerted effort to stamp out a native culture. For this one happy story, there were many thousands of sad ones. Yet heroism shines brightest in the darkest times, and the victory that this 14-year-old girl achieved over an evil state program remains an example through the generations.

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