Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian director Phillip Noyce’s second Miramax film to be released in as many weeks, isn’t as inexcusably boorish as his softcore literary adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, but it’s still without a sincere emotional hook to make it feel less like an attention-grabbing political stunt. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Doris Pilkington, Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the story of a trio of pre-teen half-Aborigine girls who, in 1931, escaped from a state-run reform school and walked over 1,500 miles across the Australian Outback to return to their home territory. This is the kind of placid melodrama that attacks your brain by way of your heart, a familiar sort of high-minded message movie in which the young protagonists turn our emotions into sentimental mush while their plight opens our eyes to yet another chapter in the Famous Wrongs of World History. But Noyce, who’s become so accustomed to operating on the dumb-and-dumber Hollywood mindset of The Saint and Clear and Present Danger, directs Rabbit-Proof Fence with the precision of an amateur heart surgeon working with a butter knife. Noyce is back in his native turf and his manifest enthusiasm ensures an agreeable, optimistic balance throughout the film, but it doesn’t endure the lofty criteria of his objectives. The film neither engages us emotionally nor gives us more than a rudimentary outline of the government’s racist mandates regarding its young half-caste Aboriginal citizens, most of whom were stripped away from their families to be turned into servants and laborers until as late as the 1970s. On one hand, it’s somewhat refreshing not to be entirely boxed in by mawkish conventions, yet the film leaves little in their place besides Kenneth Branagh’s tepid performance as A.O. Neville, the bureaucrat in charge of deciding which children get shipped off to civilization. Contrast his bland white villainy with the provocative anti-imperialist sentiments of The Quiet American, a film that still grabs you by the collar in spite of its insipid romantic roundelay. Rabbit-Proof Fence opts for a more subversive approach, burying its outrage within the longing of leading actress Everlyn Sampi’s face and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s lonesome, isolated widescreen vistas, which are stunning to look at but don’t accurately stand in for a full-fledged argument. Only in its final surprising shots does Rabbit-Proof Fence find the authority it’s looking for, and the nakedness of the moment should stay with viewers longer than anything else in the film. Had Noyce begun from this juncture of clarity instead of arriving at it, he might have made the masterpiece he’s still in search of.
- Phillip Noyce
- Christine Olsen
- Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpilil, Ningali Lawford, Jason Clarke, Kenneth Branagh
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