The Oregonian Entertainment News

Unfenced borders of the human spirit


When you think of all the things that "Rabbit-Proof Fence" could have been, it's all the more impressive with what director Philip Noyce and his collaborators have made of it.

A story of brutally racist governmental policies, indomitable humanity, spirited young girls and cruelly mechanistic authorities, it might have been heavy-handed, treacly, pretty or scolding -- or, indeed, all of that at once.

Instead, it's a tense, clear-eyed, poetic movie, built on low-key performances, genuine suspense, handsome craft and poker-faced exposition of a galling historical incident. It's confident enough to resist the urge to sanctify its heroes or demonize its villains, and it's so lovely and clear that you could watch it simply for the visuals and come near to understanding it.

The film is rooted in a segregationist policy of the Australian government intended to keep the aboriginal and European bloodlines distinct. Any children of mixed blood -- "half-castes," they were termed -- were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to a training camp to learn Christianity, obedience and the domestic arts. In time, it was hoped by the administrator of the program, a Mr. Neville (known to the natives as "Mr. Devil"), the mixed race would simply die off or become more and more fully absorbed into the white bloodline. Meanwhile, its members would find useful roles in society as maids, gardeners and the like.

The film follows the true story of Molly, Daisy and Gracie, three girls taken in 1937 to a camp about 1,200 miles from their mothers, who were left keening in the dust as their children were swept away. Under the steely determination of Molly (Everlyn Sampi), the three escaped their dormitory and lit out for home, hoping to find their way by following the course of a cross-continental fence built by the government to keep rabbits out of the nation's farmlands. The ironic resonance of this fence with the segregationist policy is clear but never remarked upon.

Pursued on the road by a cunning trapper (David Gulpilil, still recognizable as the young native from 1971's "Walkabout") and in the media by the well-meaning but pernicious Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh, who won an Emmy playing another eugenicist of the period in HBO's 2001 film "Conspiracy"), the girls seem sure to be caught. But Molly is exceedingly clever at avoiding the hunters -- you can see in the trapper's eyes that he admires her wiles -- and many settlers and travelers in the outback who are rooting for the girls offer them help, advice, food and shelter.

Noyce, who left his native Australia after his 1989 hit "Dead Calm" for a career pumping out action films in Hollywood ("Patriot Games," "The Saint," "Clear and Present Danger"), finds beauty, hope and fear in the landscape. With famed Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle, he makes even the most inhospitable climate seem gorgeous. And he has a nice, light touch with his actors, getting a toughly tender performance out of Sampi (who, like the other girls, is an amateur) and a muted, plainspoken intensity out of Branagh.

The result is a film that outrages and fills the viewer with poetry that's at once epic and intimate, scandalizing and life-affirming -- a real work of art.