(2002) dir. Phillip Noyce
Based on a biographical account of real events, this film’s most-compelling qualities arise from its story’s basis in the real circumstances that set the stage for the narrative. I have not been familiar with the history of the relationship of European settlers in Australia and the Aboriginal peoples, though it has interesting parallels and counterpoints with the experience of European settlements that shaped the history of the United States. I don’t know if the subjugation of the Aboriginal people of Australia ever amounted to the outright genocide of America’s native peoples, so I don’t have that pretext to situate the facts that this film attempts to document.
The events of the film are set in the 1940’s, when the “White”-controled government of Australia systematically removed “half-caste” children from their families and sought to assimilate the lighter-complected children into “White” culture. The dubiously “well-intentioned” racism is almost jaw-dropping, though when compared to the United States’ contemporary dealings with racial issues, the reality was not utterly isolated, though certainly different. The most shocking fact of the situation documented is that the process continued up until 1970, which, again if juxtaposed against the de-segregation of schools in the American South or other civil rights changes in the United States, again makes one realize that it’s easy to forget how recently these horrible practices persisted.
Rabbit-Proof Fence depicts this legacy of racism as the back-drop to a story of three young girls who trek 1200 miles across the desert to return to their families after having been forcibly removed from them. It’s an epic journey for such young children, one that lasted more than nine weeks. The film, which has a running time of just over an hour and a half, really fails to catch the scope of their journey, partially through its tight pacing and short narrative duration. The girls are all very good. They seem like non-professional actors, largely, and offer that flavor of neo-realism that one associates with non-professional actor performances, to add verisimilitude.
Kenneth Branagh plays A.O. Neville, the government minister in charge of the system, who spews the rhetoric and masterminds the agency responsible for re-locating the children. The children refer to him as “Mr. Devil” and the film seems to well share that attitude as well. In my mind, the film overdoes his portrayal, shooting from the girls’ perspectives, he is framed in a Fish-Eye lens, as clearly an alien force.
I found this film a little disappointing, since I had heard such good things about it. The story is so compelling and the child actors are so strong and the Australian desert is so amazing, that it’s easy to get wrapped up in it. But when the film is actually operating its stylistic interpretations, setting mise-en-scene, it really seems somewhat unsophisticatedly overdone…in my opinion.