Rabbit-Proof Fence is not fiction. It is the true story of three Aborigine children–Molly and Daisy Craig and their cousin Gracie Fields–who in 1931 were taken forcibly from their mothers and their home in Jigalong in the north of Australia and moved to the Moore River Native Settlement over a thousand miles away. This travesty is carried out in the film on the orders of A.O. Neville Chief Protector of the Aborigines (played by Kenneth Branagh) who believes the best way to solve Australia’s “coloured problem” is to breed the aboriginal blood out of mixed-race children. According to his pseudo-scientific rationale for racism the way to do that is to make sure so-called “half castes” don’t marry full-blooded Aborigines (that would dilute the white blood you see). Neville is not alone in his sentiments. This popular racial philosophy meant that from 1905 to 1971 (no that’s not a typo) it was government policy to remove children from their homes against their will. Molly Daisy and Gracie were three such children and Rabbit-Proof Fence is the story of their remarkable escape from the settlement and their adventures on the journey home to Jigalong–as told by Molly’s daughter Doris Pilkington Garimara in a book released on Nov. 27 two days before the film opened in New York and Los Angeles.
As one might imagine the success of this film hinges on the abilities of its very young stars Molly (Everlyn Sampi) Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan). The three girls come off very well; they’re believable in the roles and they truly make you feel the hardship of their journey. They’re very mature especially Sampi who carries most of the scenes as the girls’ leader helping them to get food find shelter and above all avoid being captured by the Aborigine tracker who follows in their wake Moodoo (David Gulpilil). They don’t play the parts too sweetly or innocently which is quite an achievement especially since they still manage to create some pretty intense emotional impact. That being said however something is missing from Rabbit-Proof Fence. Despite the narrative’s focus on children of mixed races nearly everything in this film is well black and white. Strong main characters are sacrificed in favor of the social issues the film wants to address so the girls serve as allegorical figures for the hopes of every mixed-race child and Branagh stands for every nasty white racist who ever walked on Australian soil. While there’s nothing wrong with allegory per se and while there’s no question who was right and who was wrong in the historical situation it doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling or thought-provoking film.
Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American The Bone Collector) and director of photography Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American In the Mood for Love) you hardly notice while you’re watching the movie that you’re being pounded ’bout the head with moral pronouncements. This is one gorgeous-looking film. The fence that guides the girls home (ironically enough built by their white fathers who’ve moved on to build elsewhere) runs on for miles; heat shimmers over a vast empty desert that somehow still seems beautiful. Moments like these enhanced by a fascinating soundtrack from world music maestro Peter Gabriel make it easier to overlook the weaknesses of the story. But there’s no question that the film’s symbols serve as little more than that: The fence which could have been used to great effect as a metaphor instead serves merely as a symbol of the racial separation already depicted in the story. A soaring “spirit bird” that Molly watches wide-eyed with wonder is such an obvious symbol of freedom it’s almost painful; there are no layers of meaning here. Everything is cut and dried which seems to be becoming a habit for Noyce whose The Quiet American was similarly lacking in subtlety.