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Rabbit-Proof Fence (PG)
Official Site
Director: Phillip Noyce
Producers: Phillip Noyce, Christine Olsen
Written by: Christine Olsen; book Follow The Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington/Nugi Garimara
Cast: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Mongahan, David Gulpilil, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke, Ningali Lawford, Myarn Lawford

Rating: out of 5

History, at best, is chock full of human error. While the motives of mankind in general have a firm grasp on what’s best for itself, the actions of the individual frequently neglect to consider whether or not those motives include what’s best for the fringes of society. Protector becomes oppressor, and the culture for the masses becomes an elitist variation of clubhouse politics: We say who fits and who can be molded to fit, and the rest of you can go to hell.

In Rabbit-Proof Fence, director Phillip Noyce addresses these concerns by looking at the movement by the Australian government in the early 20th century to assimilate the thousands of half-white Aborigine children into Anglo culture. This prevention of a third race, as the powers-that-be so nobly dictated it, would give these “half-caste” children the opportunities their blood gave them the right to have but their Aborigine upbringings wouldn’t allow. Or, as Kenneth Branagh’s Mr. Neville, “Protector of Aborigines,” puts it, “In spite of himself, the native must be helped.”

As the film tells it, the integration of these children was seen as unconditional, and worse, unimpeachable. The children were forcibly taken from their Aborigine families and sent to missions where the principles of white identity were drilled into them around the clock. Forbidden to speak their own language, forced to pray to a white, Christian god, and severely punished for attempts to challenge white authority, these children found themselves in a grim position: Adjust to white standards or live in misery. And all the while, the conviction among the white government and the white teachers was that this was for the good of the native, that this was not oppression but fortification. It was a kind of born-again Victorianism, an instance of political correctness outlining and justifying the standards of conformity.

But with Rabbit-Proof Fence, Noyce doesn’t want to merely give us a political treatise. He has a story to tell, and it is one hell of a story. Molly Craig (Sampi) and her younger sisters, Daisy (Sansbury) and Gracie (Mongahan), ranging from the ages of eight to twelve, are all half-white, half-Aborigine girls who find themselves ripped from their mother’s care and sent to live in one of the missions, where their incorporation into white society awaits them. They are repeatedly told that, yes, this is for your own good, yes, you do want to be white and know Jesus, but their environment says otherwise. Brought to the mission in a cage in the back of pickup, forced to sleep in a single room filled wall to wall with flimsy cots and to go to the restroom in a metal bucket in the corner, the girls, especially Molly, see their situation for what it really is: the last-ditch efforts to contain them by a white majority scared shitless by them. And so they run away, intent on covering the 1500 miles back home. The rabbit-proof fence that they use to guide their way is, in effect, a lifeline to their own way of life, covering hundreds of different types of land, cutting through as many different lifestyles along its way, but always ending up at home, where everything is how it’s supposed to be.

It’s a great story, made all the more amazing when you realize that it’s true. Noyce and screenwriter Christine Olsen relate it with authenticity and compassion, and you don’t doubt for a second that they care about these girls. The only misstep in the film is in the casting of Kenneth Branagh. As an actor, Branagh is strongest when he gets to be smug, sarcastic, and just a bit of an ass, fully aware of how ludicrous things can get. As Neville, though, he has to play determined, blind, and serious-minded, and it just doesn’t fit. His is a character defined by wrong-headed vision and misguided policy, and Branagh is simply too self-aware an actor to play the part. He’s only good when he’s commenting on absurdity. Here, he’s the subject of the commentary.

—Cole Sowell


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