It’s more than a little shocking to learn that the harsh practices outlined in Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, set in 1931, were still being used in Australia as recently as 1970. Indeed, it’s an outrage.
At the heart of Noyce’s film is the practice of removing half-caste children from their Aborigine mothers and placing them in “camps” for training as domestic servants and factory workers. There was no legal recourse for the Aborigines; it was all sanctioned and controlled by the Australian government. And at the time the film takes place, the practice was overseen by a Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), a kind of amateur “geneticist” whose plan was to “breed” the blackness out of the half-castes, as he gleefully charts by showing “scientific” slides of their “progression” to “quadroon” and “octaroon.” It is hardly a surprise that he’s known to the Aborigines as “Mr. Devil.”
Whether drawing on fact or dramatic license, the film takes pains to present Neville as something of an Australian extension of a pre-Civil War American slave owner. He evidences a cruelly patriarchal “concern” for his charges, justifying his actions with a paternal nod of doing “what’s best for them,” mindless of the fact that he’s doing little more than providing slave labor, stripping Aborigine children of their rights and separating them from their families. This image of subjugation is driven home when a group of children are made to sing Neville’s favorite song: “Swannee River.” What is perhaps even more appalling, though, is the bland manner in which so much of the world surrounding Neville accepts all of this. And that is what finally hits home — not the monstrousness or cruelty of one man, or even one government.
Noyce’s film goes to great lengths — and rightly so — to present a complex picture where kindness exists next to cruelty, and where not everyone subscribes to Aborigine-subjugating laws, and many are willing to break them. Most of the government officials not connected to Neville’s office, in fact, seem to regard the whole enterprise with contempt. But what’s telling is that no one seems predisposed to actually challenge the law. This is the splendidly accomplished subtext of the film, and what the viewer is left to chew on.
The film itself focuses on three children — Molly (Everlyn Sampi); her little sister, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury); and their cousin, Gracie (Laura Monaghan) — who escape their compound and try to find their way home along 1,200 miles of the country’s rabbit-proof fence. It’s a good and dramatically viable manner in which to illuminate their overall situation, humanizing the story in a way that the bare facts wouldn’t while also highlighting the cross-cultural world the girls inhabit. As adept as they are with their native language (referred to by their keepers as “jabbering”) and traditions, they also sound exactly like the other Australians in the film when speaking English. Moreover, they are a product of the country’s own civilizing attempts: The sisters’ father worked on the rabbit-proof fence of the movie’s title, and their cousin is tellingly named Gracie Fields (after the enormously popular English music-hall star).
What doesn’t entirely work in the film is a structural problem arising from knowing the general outcome of the girls’ trek. Even at an economical 94 minutes, the last third of the film — despite containing good sequences and scenes that deepen the understanding of the law and what it spawned — tends to slightly drag. I suspect, though, that this is a case where the pacing would seem better on subsequent viewings of the film, so I don’t really fault this.
Visually, Noyce’s film is strikingly similar to Nicolas Roeg’s solo directorial debut, Walkabout, and it evidences a similar respect for and fascination with the mysteries of Aboriginal culture. Much like Roeg, Noyce has cast non-actors to good effect. The three girls are solid, delivering their limited dialogue without a hitch. Yet it’s essentially a filmmaker’s film in which the performances are most often created by direction and editing rather than by acting skills. The movie’s beautiful images and powerful subject matter are accompanied by a haunting Peter Gabriel score, which ties the package together flawlessly.
Blessedly, Rabbit-Proof Fence never succumbs to the trap of being merely high-minded, but succeeds as effective filmmaking in its own right, becoming a movie that is both important and good. Of course, this isn’t the only film opening locally this week with an Australian setting: There’s always Kangaroo Jack — though your time and box-office dollars will be much better spent on a journey along the rabbit-proof fence.