Thursday, January 31, 2013

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence
Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh

Although I am by no means an expert on Australian cinema, nor have I seen tons upon tons of this country’s films, I *will* say that there is a certain sensibility to many of the films from Australia I’ve seen that I really enjoy.  Rabbit-Proof Fence continues in the tradition of Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, My Brilliant Career, and yes, even a bit of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in terms of pitting man (or in this case, girls) against nature and drawing on just a hint of otherworldliness along the way. 

Three “half-caste” (re: half Aboriginal, half white) children, Molly (Sampi), Daisy (Sansbury), and Gracie (Monaghan), are taken away from their mothers in 1930s Australia as part of A.O. Neville’s (Branagh) plan to “breed the dark out of them.”  The white population was in total control of the Aboriginal population and felt it their duty to provide a traditionally white upbringing to these “half-caste” children.  Molly, though, is having none of it; she is a clever girl, and escapes the settlement in order to return to her mother, bringing her sister and cousin with her.  This involves a journey of 1200 miles on foot, following the eponymous fence, which runs for thousands of miles across Australia back to Molly’s mother’s home.

The tension of this film is based on racial prejudices: the whites have cordoned off the Aborigines.  This theme has been seen too many times around the world, but here in the States, we don’t hear about many of these tales as often as we should.  We only vaguely know about the struggles of the indigenous peoples in Australia; it’s good to see a movie like Rabbit-Proof Fence in order to be made more aware.  Although the concept of “The Stolen Generation” is still apparently debated in Australia (by conservatives, so take that for what you will), what is not up for debate is the racial prejudice behind such an idea.  Watching Molly, Daisy, and Gracie being ripped from the arms of their mothers at the opening of film is rough.

Given that racial prejudices lead to such vile hatred, what sets the prejudices in Rabbit-Proof Fence apart is the lack of outright hatred we see on the screen.  This is personified by Branagh’s portrayal of Neville, the man responsible for the concept of separating children from their parents in order to “raise them correctly.”  Neville is clearly the chief antagonist, the man who plots and schemes to keep the girls in their settlement and away from their mothers.  But he is also completely convinced that he is acting in the girls’ best interest by doing so.  Here is a man so utterly committed to his ideology that he honestly does not realize how morally reprehensible it is.  It’s interesting, then; Neville is not so much hateful as he has an awful case of tunnel-vision.  It’s rather like Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Fugitive – not chasing Harrison Ford because he hates him, but because it is his job, it is what he is supposed to do.  This is mirrored by the nurse at the settlement: she is stern, but also a little kind.  She honestly thinks she is helping these children.  It’s an interesting concept of evil.

Necessarily filmed mostly in exteriors, we get lovely, awesome, sweeping landscapes of Australia throughout the film.  Very few scenes are indoors – in fact, most of the indoor scenes are those involving Neville.  This lends his character a kind of claustrophobia, underlining how unaware or insensitive he is of the larger world around him.  Furthermore, what’s nice about the scenery in Rabbit-Proof Fence is that the exteriors are varied.  It’s not simply barren red desert for every scene.  The girls are making a voyage of over 1200 miles; naturally, their landscape would alter along the way. 

The soundtrack to Rabbit-Proof Fence is very good, and one that I noticed right away in my first viewing.  Peter Gabriel composed it, but he doesn’t go hog wild synthesizer cheesetastic (as he is sometimes wont to do).  There’s a restraint that builds a haunting sense of isolation.  Naturally he uses many native Australian instruments (take a shot every time you hear a didgeridoo), and he can’t help but sneak some synthesizer in there a little, but he focuses on percussion.  The beats, the rhythms are the important aspects in this score, not a melodic theme.  The score provides the heartbeat of the film.

He's one badass mofo.

I smiled so broadly when David Gulpilil first appeared onscreen.  Given that I like many of the Australian films I’ve seen, and referring to those specifically mentioned in my opening paragraph, casting Gulpilil is not only awesome, but it feels right, almost necessary.  Gulpilil, in all his awesomeness, plays Moodoo, the crackerjack tracker Neville sets on the girls.  Moodoo never fails to return a runaway, and he can read the landscape like a pro.  Molly knows this, and she is immensely clever in her planning and her trek; she must be, in order to outwit Moodoo.  What I found enjoyable was watching Moodoo’s respect for his prey grow throughout the film.  Indeed, in some scenes, I was uncertain whether or not Moodoo knew exactly where the girls were, but refused to say.  Gulpilil is an actor whose performance comes from his presence rather than his words.  He can be a bit stilted reciting dialogue, but he’s awesome with piercing stares and otherworldly charisma.  In the making-of documentary on the DVD, the three girls who played the leads were shown Walkabout prior to their meeting Gulpilil (I wonder if they were shown the end).  There is a sense, especially if you consider Walkabout, of the torch being passed between generations of Aboriginal actors.

Ultimately, though, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a tense and dramatic film that makes for good watching.  It easily pulled me in and got me emotionally invested in the plight of these girls.  Cracking good yarn!

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10


  1. I found this one pretty moving, too. Nice observation about the Branagh character--he's sort of the living embodiment of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

    And yeah, David Gulpilil is one of those actors who always makes me smile a little bit.

    1. Thanks. And YES, definitely agreed re: road to Hell. I was amazed by how little I dislike Neville in this movie; rather, I wanted him to realize how destructive he was being. He feels like a character that has the possibility being "converted," so to speak, to the "good side," he just needs a major awakening.

      This was one I was surprised I hadn't seen earlier. I don't know why but for some reason I didn't think I would like it - I honestly have no idea where that came from. But it was gripping and moving and entertaining.

  2. I was also going to use the good intentions quote (great minds, etc.)

    Good review. I remember seeing a film years ago that was titled Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. A daughter of a very religious family figures out she is a lesbian. As you can imagine, this doesn't go over well with her parents, but their reaction, and the actions they take to "rid her" of this curse, are made even more frightening by the fact that they are doing it out of their concept of love and saving her from being damned forever. The woman who wrote the script was basically doing an autobiography.

    1. Definitely sounds like a film from the same vein - crazy distorted love rather than out-and-out hatred. Thanks for the mention of it - I've never even heard of it.

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