In the inventory of human atrocities, it ranks somewhere below the Holocaust and somewhere above Jim Crow: For most of the 20th century — from 1905 until 1971 — the Australian government forcibly removed half-caste Aboriginal children from their families and indentured them in menial jobs, all in an effort to inculcate them with “white” culture. This little history lesson, as depicted in Phillip Noyce’s poignant Rabbit-Proof Fence, is likely something of a newsflash for most American audiences, illuminating a heretofore unknown shame of our friends Down Under. But it can hardly come as a surprise — instead, it’s with a kind of deep and embarrassed resignation that we have to acknowledge yet another horror wrought by European colonialism and cultural imperialism.
The scale of it is almost too enormous to comprehend — countless thousands upon thousands of children legally kidnapped, an indigenous culture smashed and a colonial culture stained — and Noyce doesn’t even attempt a grand overview. Instead, working from a true story of one young girl’s refusal to be taken from all she knew and loved, he focuses on the literal heart of the issue and brings it to sad, authentic life in a way that transcends race, gender, and nationality — this is a human story, not a political one.
Molly (Everlyn Sampi) is 14 years old in 1931, when she, her 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are taken from their home. Their small village of Jigalong is just a remote depot along the rabbit-proof fence — stretching more than 1000 miles from the north coast to the south, the barbed-wire barrier protected farms in the western coastal area from plagues of rabbits descending from the interior. Though their mothers were Aborigine, their fathers were white, and so, “for their own good” and for the purity of white Australia, desperate to see the “coloreds” bred out of existence, the girls are sent to Moore River Native Settlement, hundreds of miles away, to be trained as domestic servants for white cityfolk.
Moore River is a dismal parody of a summer camp, dozens of kids jammed into airless shacks, sleeping on cots, and subject to verbal and physical abuse from their keepers. None of the other children, each snatched at far more tender an age than Molly, have any memories of their mothers, but she knows she has a mother, so there’s no point in hanging around Moore River. Off she goes, with Daisy and Gracie in tow, to walk the 1500 miles home. All they have to do is follow the rabbit-proof fence, which goes right through Jigalong… though of course there are many dangers along the way, from waterless deserts to their abductors, hot in pursuit of the escapees.
The fence itself — an audacious project to fence off wild Australia from the respectable white people — is but one of the miserable ironies in a story laden with euphemism and mendacity: Australia has no native rabbits; the pests were brought by the Europeans with them. Corralling the native “pests” is the job of Mr. Neville, the “Chief Protector of the Aborigines,” the legal guardian of all indigenous people in Western Australia. Kenneth Branagh (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog), in one of his more finely tuned performances ever, plays Neville as his own bundle of paradoxes: though the Aboriginal children call him “Mr. Devil,” there’s a genuine kindness (to his mind) in all he does on their behalf, and a genuine distress when he receives the news of the three girls disappeared into the outback. The banality of the malevolence of Branagh’s Neville, of which he himself is entirely unaware, only lends depth to the quiet horror of the film: What could be more terrifying than someone doing the worst kind of wrong who is absolutely convinced he is in the right?
But the story belongs to the girls, all played by untrained Aboriginal actresses, and their raw talent and energy onscreen saves this uplifting adventure of the human spirit from the sticky sentimentality that usually characterizes such tales. Noyce, returning to his native country since 1989’s Dead Calm, has tossed away the empty popcornness of his recent Hollywood films (including The Bone Collector and a couple of Jack Ryan action flicks) in favor of true desolation. The girls’ long journey home takes them not through a golden land of wonder, the typical Hollywood take on Australia, but a beautiful and dangerous landscape made lonelier and emptier by the horribly misguided actions of those who came late to this land.