Rabbit, run

Fence's odyssey exposes Australia's racist history

Australia's rabbit problem in the early 20th century must have reached biblical proportions. The barbed-wire boundary that gives Rabbit-Proof Fence its title stretches for 1,500 miles — about the same length as the Great Wall of China — and virtually bisects the continent.

But Rabbit-Proof Fence proves more pressingly concerned with the country's "Aborigine problem" than with pest control. The film suggests that for the ruling, white power structure, the two phrases meant essentially the same thing, with a legally entrenched system bent on domesticating the native population of color.

Rabbit-Proof Fence offers a furious historical critique in the guise of a chase movie. It takes a true footnote from Australia's history and presents it like a runaway's tale from Uncle Tom's Cabin, transported to the arid outback of Walkabout.

The film takes place in 1931, when all Aboriginal affairs were controlled by an office with the Orwellian title of "Chief Protector." In the position, Kenneth Branagh's Mr. Neville sees himself as having custody of the Aboriginal peoples. While addressing a genteel ladies' group early in the film, he explains the laws that permit removing children of mixed parentage from their families. By teaching the biracial children the ways of white civilization, encouraging more mixed breeding — and essentially making them servants — the policy aims to remove the "inferior" Aboriginal strain in the population.

The chilling quality of Branagh's performance is that his Neville is not a vicious racist but a stuffy career bureaucrat who sincerely believes he's doing the Aborigines a favor.

We see the government's policy in action at the depot community of Jigalog, home to three little girls named Molly (Everlyn Sampi), her sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan). In a wrenching scene, all three are forcibly taken from their screaming mothers, thrown into the back of a car and driven away.

The girls end up in Moore River Native Settlement, a kind of combination indoctrination camp and middle-of-nowhere orphanage. There Mr. Neville himself decides children's futures based literally on the shade of their skin at an assembly where the choir is made to sing, of all things, "Way Down Upon the Swanee River." Molly bristles at the separation from her mother and the camp's harsh treatment, and when the others are at church services, she seizes a chance to flee with Daisy and Gracie.

Unfortunately, Moore River is 1,200 miles from Jigalog, and the three girls have no choice but to make their way on foot. The rabbit-proof fence will lead them home, but poses a problem: In a land that's often flat as a pancake, the girls have virtually nowhere to hide if their pursuers figure out their route.

From then on, Fence's plot is simplicity itself, an archetypal story of resisting oppression, and director Phillip Noyce lets it unfold in a spare, measured fashion. The fence itself is both a powerful symbol of separation and a striking visual object. Like the girls, we grow accustomed to it as an endless part of the landscape, and we share their dislocating fear when it simply trails off into a lethal-looking expanse of desert.

The girls' homeward odyssey is marked by modest episodes in which both white and black Australians help their escape. Their case becomes famous, and the girls are nonplused when one Good Samaritan asks, "Which one of you is Gracie?" The three young actresses generate great sympathy for the girls, and Sampi nicely conveys Molly's determination. But otherwise, Fence offers few opportunities for exploring character, and in the film's second half, Branagh has little to do but hear reports and issue orders in his dimly lit office.

Rabbit-Proof Fence contrasts with The Fast Runner, which also depicted individuals of a little-known group dwarfed by their harsh, exotic environment. Yet Runner also afforded its characters internal struggles, and Fence doesn't get the same chance. But if Rabbit-Proof Fence has a few narrative limitations, its capacity for inspiring social outrage is unbound.