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Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Rabbit-Proof Fence
It’s become a sort of habit of ours to go to the movies on Christmas Day—lots of parking spaces, no problems getting a good seat, and always lots of fresh new movies released just in time to qualify for Oscar nominations. This year we plumped for Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce’s story of the struggle of three “half-caste” Aboriginal girls snatched from their home and shipped to an institution 1,500 miles away to walk back to their families.

It’s a great movie that handles its agit-prop elements very deftly. Kenneth Branagh is brilliant as the civil servant driven by a missionary zeal to “civilize” mixed-race children, to “breed the black out of them,” as he’d put it. Branagh manages a nicely nuanced portrayal of someone who truly believes he’s acting out of love, being cruel to be kind. He’s not a sadistic Nazi (though, of course, he’s played that role pretty effectively in the past), he’s a sadistic do-gooder, a 1930s spin doctor who gives earnest slide shows to the women’s institute with the same passion he uses to bully policemen into wasting manpower chasing three kids around the vast Australian desert. (He was so damned reasonable in the part, in fact, that I wondered what the two mixed-race kids sitting with their parents in the row behind me would take away from the film. Since the Aboriginal characters often spoke in their native tongue, and the kids may not have been old enough to read the subtitles at the required speed, Branagh’s measured tones may have had more of an emotional impact, despite the repulsiveness of his position.)

The three girls are amazing. The official Web site goes through the usual palaver about the difficulties of casting, but in this case I have absolutely no problems believing it. This was a movie where the pool of suitable actors was relatively limited, the chances were that those chosen would have very little—if any—professional experience, and they had to be effective because they were on-screen, driving the film’s action, for most of its 94 minutes. All three did a great job, but Everlyn Sampi, who played Molly, the eldest and the leader, was amazing. On the Web site, Noyce says, “In Everlyn I see that star quality I have only seen twice in my career, once in Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm) and then again in Angelina Jolie (The Bone Collector) but now I had seen it a third time in Everlyn Sampi.” He may be dissing Sampi by putting her in that company.

So much of the film is the camera looking down on them from on high or gazing up on them from below, but all three girls—especially Molly—stay right in the middle of the picture. It could so easily have gone wrong—it would be easy to grow bored of their wanderings or lose interest in the chase—but the actors kept a tight hold on the audience’s attention.

Some critics complained that Noyce held back too much and kept the emotional temperature too cool, but I think that restraint make the movie’s political message all the more effective, especially the final coda that takes the story out of the closed world of history and bang into the middle of real life as it’s lived right now.