Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)Rated PG for emotional thematic material.
Starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh.
LVJeff's Rating: 9/10
Photo ©Miramax Films. All rights reserved.
So there I was, sitting in a small theater, watching Rabbit-Proof Fence. The movie deals with Australian aborigines, and the soundtrack is appropriately inspired by native aboriginal music. As I listened, it felt spiritual, yet familiar-sounding. "This sounds like music Peter Gabriel would play," I thought to myself. Later, the credits began to roll, and I got to say a little "A ha!" to myself as the words "Music by Peter Gabriel" appeared. "I knew it!", I triumphantly thought.
What little of Gabriel's popular music I have heard has already shown me how much he believes in the will and spirit of the people of native lands. Several of his works lament "civilization's" encroachment upon these populations. Therefore, his involvement with Rabbit-Proof Fence is all too appropriate -- this is a film dedicated to sympathizing with native tribal Australians as they face the machinations of the wrong-headed white society. In fact, the bureaucrats enforcing civilized society's laws could not have been given a more evil depiction, since their goal is to abduct any desert-roaming children born from a white-plus-aborigine coupling, train them as domestic staff, and assimilate them to city life in the hopes of breeding away any trace of dark skin on their descendants.
It's a compelling situation because it actually happened. The film's story takes place in 1931, and the main character, a half-and-half (they are dubbed "half-castes") girl named Molly Craig, is still alive today. In the movie, she (Everlyn Sampi), her sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) -- all half-castes -- are kidnapped by the Australian government and sent 1500 miles away from their mothers to a training camp. But Molly and her two relatives make a daring getaway.
What follows could have easily been a standard hide-from-pursuers-and-survive movie, but at least a couple of elements help Rabbit-Proof Fence stand out. The first is a wonderful find -- Everlyn Sampi. In casting her as the pre-teen Molly, the filmmakers couldn't have asked for a better debuting young actress. Sampi acts mostly with facial expressions, natural gestures, and few words. Playing the leader of the escape party, she demonstrates a strong will and an intelligent intensity, mostly just by using her eyes. One admirable scene entirely relies on and succeeds because of her timing on a smile.
The movie is also helped by the solemn atmosphere provided by director Phillip Noyce. Although the movie starts off a little forced -- the kidnapping scene and some of the characters at the training grounds come to mind -- once the journey begins, it settles into a quietness with few distractions, concentrating on the girls' moves and how they are affected by the land around them, the people they meet, and the proximity of the pursuers. Noyce doesn't pump up the suspense on any occasion -- the close calls are realistically depicted, the luck of the hunters never feels contrived, and the events feel natural and unforced.
Overall, the odyssey doesn't feel like the desperate ordeal of a few individuals; it is rather quite the opposite -- a journey representing a people's unbreakable spirit. Instead of making us feel hopeless and worried, the movie communicates hope and confidence. The aforementioned score by Peter Gabriel feels like a sacred calling, delivering strength. Rabbit-Proof Fence has all the potential of a downbeat movie -- it even carries a saddening epilogue -- but it is ultimately uplifting, emotionally warm, and well worth a viewing.
©Jeffrey Chen, Dec. 1, 2002