Rabbit-Proof Fence is a simple story based on true events. The story’s simplicity lends it the feel and power of a fable.A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) is the government appointed Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia. He labels three indigenous girls “half-caste” and they are forcibly removed from their family. Molly, Daisy and Gracie are relocated to a camp with other half-caste children to be trained as servants for white households. The three girls, ranging in age from 8 to 14 years, escape and begin the 1200-mile trek home. The rabbit-proof fence that runs the length of the State is their guide.
The non-professional actors playing the girls (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan) give naturalistic performances. Although the girls are usually required to be cagey and non-responsive, we always know what they’re feeling from their body language and expressive faces. Some familiar Australians (Deborah Mailman, David Gulpilil, Roy Billing) lend solid support. The Chief Protector’s ideas are alien and ludicrous to modern audiences, but Branagh’s nicely understated performance makes Neville seem misguided, rather than cruel.
Christine Olsen’s screenplay has a slightly programmatic feel, as the girls move from one encounter to the next on their journey. But Phillip Noyce keeps the action fluid, and his gifted direction of the action and the actors transforms Rabbit-Proof Fence into an accomplished, commercial entertainment. He brings out the sly humour of the situation - three young girls and their elderly female relatives outwitting the combined male forces of the government bureaucracy and the police. Chris Doyle’s vivid photography showcases the harsh grandeur of the landscape, simultaneously impressing us with the enormity of the girls’ undertaking.Although this is one of the first Australian films explicitly concerning the generations of indigenous children stolen from their families under white Australian law, Noyce hasn’t attempted to make the definitive feature on the subject. He recognises that this is just one of numerous stories that could be told. Although Rabbit-Proof Fence is set in 1931, the ending clearly demonstrates that the impact of the “stolen generations” policies resonated far into the future.