Born to run
Adventure story set in Australia resonates with American history
In Australia in 1931, three “half-caste” Aborigine girls—the sisters Molly and Daisy Craig and their cousin Gracie Fields—fled the Moore River agency to which the government had forcibly taken them and trekked 1,500 miles on foot back to their home village. It’s a good story for a movie and for much else, and Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence tells it in a way that is both powerful and understated.
Initially, Noyce’s film has the look of an angry social-protest piece in a grittily neo-realist mode—sun-bleached outback locations, a range of non-professional actors, and straight-on portrayal of the Australian government’s attempts to remove half-caste children from all contact with Aboriginal society. But while the socio-political issues remain in play throughout, once the girls have begun their escape, Rabbit-Proof Fence also becomes a quietly intense adventure tale with a surprising array of emotions and implications.
Kenneth Branagh, the film’s only “name actor,” plays Mr. Neville (a.k.a. “Mr. Devil"), the grimly paternalistic official in charge of implementing the government’s supposedly uplifting program for a kind of racial and ethnic cleansing. But it’s the Aborigine actors who give the film its remarkable heart and spirit—Ningali Lawford as the sisters’ mother, Tianne Sansbury as tiny Daisy, David Gulpilil as Moodoo (the uniformed tracker who serves as a one-man cavalry), and especially Everlyn Sampi as the indomitable Molly, who leads the escape and whose survival skills match those of the seemingly unstoppable tracker.
Noyce and cinematographer Christopher Doyle cast the journey partly in terms to three tiny figures resolutely navigating vast landscapes, and screenwriter Christine Olsen (who based her work on a book by Molly’s daughter) punctuates their heroically meandering trek via periodic encounters with assorted outback folk along the way. The pauses in the journey complicate the social picture in interesting ways, while the desert passages take on a mythic simplicity that becomes all the more resonant once intimations of matriarchal mysticism are added to the mix.
This is very much an Australian film dealing with specters of that nation’s not-so-distant past, but American audiences are likely to spot some not entirely accidental echoes of U.S. history as well. Gulpilil, with his blue tunic and his fine tracking horse, resembles both a Buffalo Soldier and an Indian scout, and the girls might well be fleeing an Indian school and returning to sacred tribal lands. They are in a sense runaway slaves as well, and a detail about Mr. Neville (his favorite song is “The Old Folks at Home") leaves no doubt that parallels with the plantations of the pre-Civil War American South are an intended reference point.
Gulpilil, by the way, is someone you may have seen before, He’s been in a dozen other films over the last 30 years, including The Right Stuff and The Last Wave in the 1970s, and no one who saw his debut at age 17 in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout is likely to have forgotten it.