After ten years of directing the likes of Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington and Harrison Ford in Hollywood blockbusters such as The Bone Collector and Patriot Games, Phillip Noyce returns to his independent Aussie roots with Rabbit-Proof Fence, a $6 million, non-professional-starring, socially-conscious historical drama. Alas, his well intentioned foray succumbs to the fate of many "social-issue" films, forsaking complex characterization, intelligent storytelling and calculated formal design by relying solely on the "eye-opening" nature of the subject matter itself.
Set in 1931, the true story follows Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan), three Aboriginal girls aged eight through 14, on their 1200-mile journey through the Australian outback. The "social issue" that serves as the catalyst for the narrative here is the deplorable act practiced by the Australian government until the early 1970s, whereby half-caste Aboriginal girls were forcibly removed from their families and transplanted to institutions designed to train them as domestic workers and integrate them into white society. An order from A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, played with a competent candor by Kenneth Branagh, calls for the "removal" of the three girls into one such institution. Upon experiencing the prison-like conditions of the Moore River Native Settlement, Molly, the most precocious of the girls, decides to take her two companions and embark on a dangerous escape. The title of the film refers to the immensely long stretch of fence that bisects Australia, which the young girls follow in order to navigate home. Rabbit-Proof Fence becomes part journey picture, part chase film, with the fugitives battling the treacherous terrain while trying to keep one step ahead of the tracker sent to recapture them.
The majority of the film is shot from Molly's subjective point-of-view, with heavy stylizations attempting to involve the audience in her isolation: Slow-motion camerawork, extreme wide-angle shots, and characters staring right into the barrel of the lens serve to present a universe as seen from Molly's eyes. The glaring flaw of the film is that, given the attempt at such character-specific subjectivity, Noyce still paints the characters and the narrative in broad strokes. The audience constantly feels as though they're told the story, as opposed to being involved in it--exactly the opposite of what Noyce's form is attempting to do. The result of this contradiction makes for a heavily imbalanced film that often falls back on the oft-used emotional crutch of relying on the simple and general "isn't-it-a-horrible-thing-that-happened" dictum. We know it's a horrible thing that happened. We can get that from the poster and synopsis. Why not use the power of cinema to delve into complexities and subtleties of the narrative and character?
This 94-minute journey film (which feels much longer) wants to involve us with the characters, but we never get a sense of the scope and difficulty of their epic flight. Part of the problem is the film's mishandling of time. After spending a brief amount of screen time with the girls, the film cuts away to scenes with Neville, who tells us that three weeks have passed, that two months have passed, etc. When we return to the girls soon afterward, they look exactly as they did before, with nary an indication of what must have been a toilsome, tedious and painful three weeks. The wildly interesting details of the mere feat of the trek are replaced by an abridged "Cliff's Notes" version that fails to provide any depth or insight.
Factor in Christopher Doyle's grainy, high-contrast cinematography, which could easily be mistaken for digital video, and Peter Gabriel's spiritually rhythmic soundtrack, removed from its proper Last Temptation of Christ context, and the film adds up to a series of directorial missteps. To his credit, though, Noyce manages to get some respectable, if inconsistent, performances from his non-professional child actors. And given the virtually non-existent attention given to this era in history, we must acknowledge the importance of the story finally getting popular attention. But this shroud of historical importance should not obscure the flaws, and ultimate failure, of Rabbit-Proof Fence.