|Directed by||Phillip Noyce|
One of the wonders of Phillip Noyce's enthralling account of the overland odyssey of three young Aborigine girls across 1500 miles of Australian outback is that it holds our attention in the almost complete absence of most of the elements that we've come to expect from a motion picture. There is very little plot: most of the action involves our three young protagonists walking across an empty landscape, and we have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen. There are not a lot of hairbreadth escapes, dramatic confrontations, or twists of expectations. There is comparatively little dialogue. There's a conspicuous absence of sex, car chases, and explosions, and the violence is mainly of the emotional kind. There is only one star of international reputation, Kenneth Branagh, whose casting may have been one of the movie's few miscalculations. And yet it holds us in its spell from beginning to end.
In 1901 the Australian government built a fence that ran the length of Western Australia, with the purpose of keeping the exploding population of rabbits confined to one side and preserving farmland on the other. A few years later, it introduced a program designed to stamp out ?half-caste? children, many of them fathered by itinerant white fence laborers on Aborigine mothers. They would be forcibly taken from their families and put in distant schools, where they would speak only English, learn the religion and customs of the white culture, be trained as domestic servants and laborers, and within two generations of breeding to whites their progeny would be cleansed of the Aboriginal stain. That program lasted into the 1970s.
The story Noyce tells is a true one, based on the remarkable trek of Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), her little sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan). It happened in 1931, when the three girls were ripped from their mothers' arms by government agents and taken to a settlement school near Perth. Molly refused to be assimilated. She watched for an opportunity, and made her escape with her sister and cousin. The walk back north to their village of Jigalong took three months. They found their way by following the rabbit-proof fence, which serves double-duty as landmark and metaphor.
The 12-year-old Sampi is marvelous as the solemn and gutsy Molly. Her beautiful dark face is dominated by two huge eyes behind which blaze intelligence and fire. She projects the strength and determination that make us believe that this journey is possible. The tracker who is sent to bring them back is played by David Gulpilil, who first appeared in Nicholas Roeg?s ?Walkabout? and later in such Aussie classics as "The Last Wave" and "Crocodile Dundee". His weathered face shows the internal conflicts that batter him as he pursues the runaways for his White employers, and it reflects a growing admiration for the quarry he hunts with dwindling intensity. Though he has been better in other movies, Branagh does a decent job as A.O. Neville, the government bureaucrat who, as Chief Protector of the Aborigines, is charged with implementing the program. It is a program whose basis of racial superiority makes perfect sense to Neville, and he enforces it with the placid conviction that he is doing right, even if the Aborigines "don"t appreciate what we are doing for them." The problem with Branagh?s presence is that his celebrity calls attention to itself in a cast of unknowns. His name may have helped with the funding, but the movie would have been better off with a less recognizable face in the role.
Noyce is an Aussie who made some good films at home before crossing the Pacific to become what he describes as "a migrant worker in Hollywood." There he made high-budget potboilers like "Clear and Present Danger", "The Saint", and "The Bone Collector", before setting out to redeem himself with his remake of Graham Greene's "The Quiet American", which thanks to scheduling complications engendered by 9/11 will wind up following "Rabbit-Proof Fence" into wide release in January. Noyce himself seems to be experiencing some resistance to assimilation by a dominant culture. The movie benefits enormously from the spare, bleached photography of Christopher Doyle, the Australian cinematographer who has made his name in Hong Kong cinema ("In the Mood for Love"), and from Peter Gabriel's ethnic-driven score.
Christine Olsen's screenplay is adapted from the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington. Ms. Pilkington is Molly's daughter, and was herself taken from her mother at the age of four. Molly and Daisy are still alive, and were there for the movie?s premier under the stars in Jigalong. They belong to what in Australia is known as the Stolen Generations.
© Text 2003 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be