Most children can’t refrain from doing some whining and complaining on their weekly excursion to Wal-Mart. So when you see these little troopers trekking across the country, you can’t help but be uplifted a little. And have things placed in some serious perspective.
In Australia in the year of 1931, white settlers are extremely concerned that the half-caste aboriginal children of the bush will procreate with partners of the darker persuasion and stamp out sacred whiteness from peoples’ lineage. So concerned are they that they recruit an expert at white bigotry by the name of A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) to help send mixed race children to grim work camps. Their intention is to ensure the children will learn to walk the walk, talk the talk, and worship the higher power of white Christians, and, God willing, pair up with white mates, gradually easing the aborigine lineage out of their family tree. Because everybody knows that the more whiteness you put in someone’s genealogy, the whiter the descendants will look. And white is might, apparently. But what these people didn’t count on intrepid youngsters Molly, Gracie, and Daisy.
Molly (Evelyn Sampi) is the oldest of three aborigine girls, and she leads her younger sisters Gracie (Laura Monoghan) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) on an epic escape from the camp in which they’ve been placed. Using the tracking techniques of their ancestors, the girls manage to evade detection for days while attempting to follow the ‘rabbit-proof fence’ to freedom, and ultimately to their much-beloved home and family. Unfortunately, Neville has other ideas, and his determination combined with the girl’s gumption leads to a cross-country chase that will test all four people’s willpower. Because Molly and her sisters aren’t just three little girls on the lam anymore- they’ve captured the hearts and attention of the disfranchised aborigines wheedling away their days in labor camps. They stand for something- and that’s the one thing Neville won’t allow.
Although the film version of the real story of Molly Craig and the book that ensued is probably a rather sugarcoated account of the horrors the Craig girls endured and their harrowing escape from captivity, it still captures the imagination and sympathy of viewers with very little understanding of these events. I personally knew nothing about the racial issues between the white settlers and the natives in Australia, although I know that the white man has tended to conquer wherever hew saw an opportunity to do so, from the Native Americans, to Africa, to even this. The filmmaker, Philip Noyce, chose a trio of good little actresses and although their inexperience sometimes shows they manage to carry the film for the most part on their small shoulders.
Kenneth Branagh is despicable without being extravagantly and exaggeratedly evil, and the horrors of the camp where Aborigines are trained as domestic servants and have their culture systematically stamped out are shown with harrowing restraint. I think Neville (or ‘Devil,’ as the native children not-so-charitably call him) believes he is doing the right thing by attempting to ensure the preservation of the white race; it’s just that what he sees as right is in reality so very, very wrong. His character reminds me of a quote I once heard (I don’t remember who it’s attributed to, though,) that ‘every villain is a hero in his own mind.’ I’m sure Neville thinks he’s just dandy and righteous with the Lord and doing right by his countrymen, but it just so happens he’s an asshole- a big one.
The set-up of Rabbit-Proof Fence is kind of standard, not particularity innovative or new for the genre of dark emotionally charged biopics, but there are moments of genuine heartbreak and legitimate darkness. In one harrowing scene, a Aborigine maid hides the runaways in her bed because she believes if they’re in the room, it will prevent her white boss from raping her. It is scenes like these when you get a glimpse of how screwed up these events in history are. It also proves that you can leave some things to the imagination (where they are often just as scary, if not even scarier) when you’re making a movie about bleak historical events. At times I thought this movie could have benefited from showing a bit more of it’s horrific content; it’s not that I get jazzed up by child abuse and racism, I don’t; it’s just that there could have been a little more impact if it hadn’t stayed within the confines of the PG-13 rating. But in a way, they showed enough- enough to give you the idea of what Australian Aborigines went through during this time, the aftereffects of which their still grappling with today.
While Rabbit-Proof Fence is a meditation on a tumultuous time in history, it’s not a bore- slim at just over 90 minutes and compelling for it’s entire runtime, it’s probably a more arresting experience if you know nothing about the film’s social and political events beforehand. I suspect if you know a lot about the period the movie describes, it’ll seem a little lightweight and unsubstantial. It’s one of those movies that, while not hugely original, does hold the viewer’s investment and sympathy throughout and achieves the single greatest thing a film can achieve- it tells a great story. My guess is that if you like these kind of heart wrenching biopics, you, as I did, will be rooting for the girls all the way; and you, too, will have shed a tear by the closing credits.