"We walked for nine weeks, a long way, all the way home."—Molly Craig
From the late 19th century until the 1960s in Australia, half-Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to government-run institutions in an attempt to racially cleanse future generations, making them fully white. These half-caste children are known as the Stolen Generations.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on a book by Doris Pilkington about her mother's extraordinary experiences as a member of the Stolen Generations.
Facts of the Case
In 1931, 12-year-old Molly Craig, her younger sister Daisy, and their cousin Gracie are taken from their home in Jigalong and placed in a school for half-Aboriginals. The three run away from the school and, following a rabbit-proof fence that bisects the Australian continent, attempt to walk over 1,500 miles back to their mothers.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is the sort of movie that would've swept the foreign categories of major movie awards like the Oscars and Golden Globes had its director been an up-and-coming Australian instead of Phillip Noyce, a man who'd made the transition to Hollywood years before, churning out the sort of fare awards shows love to hate, action pictures like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, or thrillers like The Bone Collector. Despite the praise heaped on it by critics, Rabbit-Proof Fence only received a nomination for best score at the Golden Globes and was ignored outright by the Oscars (Noyce's other 2002 film, The Quiet American, received more attention, however). It's a shame because, honestly, it's among the best pictures I've seen in the class of 2002.
Magic sometimes happens when a maker of mass-appeal blockbusters turns his eye to art. Rabbit-Proof Fence is a case in point. A small film with an exceedingly simple plot—the humanity of its characters and performances of its actors center stage—the film benefits tremendously from its director's action-thriller past, displaying a tight sense of pacing. It whisks you along, its 94 minutes gone in a flash. A self-conscious auteur might have belabored the point, delivered a bloated, 2 1/2-hour mess. Noyce's film is lean, making its point by maintaining a sharp focus on the humanity of its characters. Ironically, its power and meaning are rooted in its not being overtly didactic.
Performances in the film are uniformly strong. Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan, who play Molly, Daisy, and Gracie are particularly impressive. They're required to carry the film and none had any acting experience prior to being cast. Sampi—the film's star—is impressive all the way around, bringing to Molly a stark intelligence and unflagging resilience. You can see in her eyes the intensity of her thought—so much of her performance is non-verbal, it's an amazing achievement for a novice. The other two have moments of stiff dialogue, but their performances are pure and natural on the whole. Noyce deserves a nod for casting non-professional child actors in the film's three lead roles and then drawing out of them the performances he did.
The one thing about this film that did garner attention at the awards ceremonies was Peter Gabriel's score, and rightly so. It's as timbre-rich and atmospheric as his work on Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and fascinating for its psychological expressiveness (it seems often to mirror the turmoil in Molly's head and heart). Also significant is its complete integration into the rest of the film's soundtrack. As the girls ride a train toward the government-run school, for instance, the rhythmic sounds of the engine meld with the score, and the score in turn imbues the train's sounds with a surreal and nightmarish quality. It's some of the most creative film music I've heard in years, and the DVD's 5.1 surround track provides an ideal presentation, spreading instruments all around the soundstage and providing deep bass tones. Dialogue, too, is vibrant and directional, never overpowered by the score or other sound effects. Sounds of nature are dynamic, aggressive, and carefully placed in the mix.
Christopher Doyle was the cinematographer on Rabbit-Proof Fence. Between his lush work here and in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, he's quickly becoming one of my favorites. In Rabbit-Proof Fence Doyle delivers engaging shot compositions and clever use of color grading in order to bolster the narrative without making his own work the center of attention. Framed at 2.35:1 in an anamorphic transfer, the DVD's presentation of the film is gorgeous. The image is stable with solid blacks and colors accurately rendered based on Doyle's stylized approach. There are some very isolated shots with prevalent grain, but otherwise the transfer is nearly flawless.
Supplements include a 43-minute documentary called "Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence." Narrated by Kenneth Branagh (who appears in the film), it consists primarily of extensive audition footage—Noyce had multiple video cameras running at all times so the aboriginal children, non-actors, could get used to their presence. Bluntly stated, it's one of the best documentary features I've seen, the sort of warts-and-all presentation so rarely found on DVD, going so far as to show Sampi's meltdown as stress mounts over the approaching shoot and Noyce's delicate, avuncular style in handling his unstable star.
Also provided is a feature commentary by Noyce with snippets of Peter Gabriel, Kenneth Branagh, screenwriter Christine Olsen, and author Doris Pilkington added in for good measure. It's a fairly lively, informative track that expresses everyone's passion for the project.
This isn't a vast array of extras, but the quality of what's provided is so high it's hard to complain. An isolated track of Gabriel's score in glorious 5.1 surround would've been appreciated, though.
One final note: the disc contains no proper subtitles, just English Closed-Captions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the DVD's cover image, Kenneth Branagh is not the star of the film. His performance as A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of the Aboriginals, is excellent, bureaucratic rather than villainous, but he's only onscreen about 10 minutes. His face should hardly dominate the cover art. I understand why studios do this sort of thing—Branagh is the only true star in the movie—but it's still a pet peeve.
Simply put, Rabbit-Proof Fence was a pleasant surprise even taking into account I'd heard nothing but good before seeing it. I urge you to see it yourself. You won't be sorry.
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Scales of Justice
• "Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence" Documentary
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