You will remember their faces for a long time


An Illusion review by Joan Ellis

                “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is rooted in historical truth which is a very lucky thing because otherwise no one would believe it.  For roughly four decades, ending in the 1970s, civilized Australia had a government department dedicated exclusively to ripping half-caste Aboriginal daughters from their families.  Their purpose:  to isolate them in a camp for retraining as maids to be absorbed into the general population.   The government would dilute Aboriginal blood by absorbing it into the national bloodstream.  

                In a performance repellant for its substance but fascinating in the light it sheds, Kenneth Branagh, officially designated “Protector of the Aborigines,” is electrifying in his ignorance as the universal man who thinks he is mighty, right and just in kidnapping young girls who meet the tests for this assimilation.  Priding himself on the benevolent treatment given the girls by the nuns, Mr. Neville (Branagh), is frustrated only that the girls and their families don’t see the wisdom of the government’s plan.  “In spite of himself, the native must be helped.”  All through the movie, America’s own turns at wrongheaded helping poke into our conscious minds:  The interned Japanese/Americans, Native/Americans, the Vietnamese people, Harvard’s newly revealed secret court. 

                In this particular story, Neville’s deputies seize the terrified girls and take them 1200 miles up the rabbit-proof fence – rabbits on one side, farmers on the other - to the Moore River settlement where they are scrubbed clean, given cots to sleep on and forced to speak only English.  Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and Gracie (Lauara Monaghan) are torn from Molly’s mother (Ningali Lawford) and grandmother (Myarn Lawford), stolen for transformation from their nomadic desert life to civilized life as maids in the houses of the rich.  Meanwhile, mother and grandmother remain heartbroken in the desert community of Jigalong. 

                Molly engineers their escape and oversees their journey home from Moore River, following the rabbit-proof fence every torturous inch of the way.  Phillip Noyce has directed the extraordinary cast with great sensitivity to both people and subject.  All three girls are perfectly wonderful as individuals and as symbols for the official disgrace that has targeted them.  You will remember their faces for a long time.  You will remember also David Gulpilil as Moodoo as the intuitive, experienced tracker who does what he’s told but keeps his thoughts to himself. 

                The journey would probably not end as happily in real life, but Phillip Noyce has chosen to film a myth that can become a legend.  He shows us the majestic but absolutely inhospitable desert that nearly swallows the three courageous little travelers.  It is the transcendent, prolonged smile of Molly’s mother as she greets her daughter that expresses sorrow felt and joy regained that imprints the film, probably forever, on our minds.  They have become memorable and moving symbols of yet another instance of man’s stupidity in thinking he can contrive a solution from his own culture for the people of another. 


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