Racism and redemption

It’s only rabbit-proof if you stand right there.

It’s only rabbit-proof if you stand right there.

Rated 4.0

The cavalcade of 2002 films just reaching Reno continues with Rabbit-Proof Fence, one of two very good movies directed by Phillip Noyce (the other being The Quiet American) in the past year.

It tells the true story of three aboriginal girls plucked from their home in Australia and placed into a child labor camp so they can be integrated into white society as domestic workers. The children are “half-whites,” fathered by visiting construction workers during the 1920s, and the government has decided to “save them” from their aboriginal upbringing.

When Molly (Everlyn Sampi), the eldest of the three girls, gets fed up, she takes matters into her own hands, wrangling her two sisters, Molly and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan) and taking them on a cross-country trek through Australia toward their homeland. They use a rabbit-proof fence, built to protect the country from an onslaught of rabbits, as their guiding light.

Noyce has made a major find with the three children, incredibly likeable and natural actresses who get the audience fired up about their characters’ plights. The two younger girls sassing their older sister, basically telling her she has no business telling them what to do, is one of the film’s major joys. The younger ones think their new home in a boarding school is livable, but Molly sees it for what it is: a slave camp.

As an administrator looking to take half-white children from their homes, Kenneth Branagh is hateful and disgusting. Branagh, so joyfully funny in the latest installment of Harry Potter, does despicable well, and it’s horrifying to know that his character is based on reality. The program he oversees in the film, children being “rescued” from their birth parents and trained as slaves, lasted into the 1970s in Australia.

Noyce is best known for his contributions to the Jack Ryan saga (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger). Some may view Rabbit-Proof Fence as a small film for Noyce, but it is actually quite grand in scope. The Australian Outback is filmed to sparse, overheated effect, with evocative work by cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack is impressive. He reaffirms his ability to flesh out a film with sound, as he did so well with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. His work here is even moodier, characteristically heavy on the driving percussion.

I had purchased the CD (Long Walk Home) well before seeing the film, and didn’t quite get it as a stand-alone piece. Upon seeing the movie, I came to realize how rich a piece of work the soundtrack is, a perfect complement to the action on screen. It should be an Oscar contender.

While 2002 saw some great breakthrough performances from Kieran Culkin (Igby Goes Down) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary), Sampi is my pick for the year’s best child performer. She carries much of the burden of this film on her shoulders, portraying an honest and convincing strength that enriches her character with believability. She is unforgettable.

While the film is, in part, a story of triumph, it leaves no doubt as to how horrifying this child internment policy was, and some closing credits reveal that the girls had a tough life ahead after making it back to their village.

Noyce has had an incredible, banner year in the director’s chair.

This is one of those movies that should be shown in classrooms the world over to make other cultures aware of this atrocity. Rabbit-Proof Fence is a hypnotic historical drama, and the three young stars at its center will keep you captivated.