Alien History

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence is one of the stranger movies I’ve seen recently. It takes a relatively obscure (for most audiences, and perhaps even Australians) historical subject and treats it relatively straightforwardly, yet it feels like scorched-earth science fiction. The film has an aura of foreignness, a curious distance, that makes it seem unreal. And if the movie is meant partly as an educational tool, that approach is counterproductive.

Directed by Phillip Noyce and adapted by Christine Olsen from the nonfiction book, Rabbit-Proof Fence takes a personal approach to a horrific story: the Australian policy in the 20th Century of keeping whites and Aboriginals separate, and “purifying” mixed-race people by breeding them with whites.

Three mixed-race girls are taken from their families to a school where they will be educated, essentially elevated from their Aboriginal culture into that of white people. A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the man who has legal control of all the “half-castes,” explains that if bred with whites, these mixed-race people will have lost all visible traces of their darkness by the third generation.

The girls escape, setting out of foot for home. The trouble is, home is several hundred miles away, and they must elude Neville’s minions, including a skilled tracker. The movie essentially takes a history lesson and turns into an adventure story — a novel if not successful approach.

The most obvious problem is that the movie doesn’t create any unique characters and tries to get by on audience sympathy for the girls’ plight and its disgust over racial injustice. We learn that the children are plucky and resourceful, but that’s it. I might have cared more about what happened in the film if the children were anything but vessels for outrage and hope. And Neville is written as a well-intentioned bigot with power — not a bad man, just misguided — but without any nuance.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is wonderfully photographed, lending the desert landscape a stark beauty but in the process robbing it of danger. And the movie’s elliptical 94-minute running time condenses the journey so much that its magnitude is diminished substantially. One gets the sense that these three girls are casually ambling 1,500 miles home, with the mild hardships of sore feet and intermittent hunger. The journey is devoid of tension or suspense, with no conveyance of struggle. (But be thankful for small things, particularly that Steven Spielberg didn’t have the opportunity to turn this brief affair into a three-hour bore.)

A more subtle — but very interesting — defect is the texture of the movie. Peter Gabriel contributes haunting, atmospheric music that’s so prominent and deep in the sound mix that it’s downright unsettling; the movie feels ungrounded. And because the score doesn’t contain the typical emotional cues — which I appreciate — Rabbit-Proof Fence is cool to its subjects. The perfection of the framing and photography also push the viewer away from the three girls. Although Noyce and his crew give the movie a visually and aurally dynamic style that goosed my attention when I was bored silly by the rest of the movie, Rabbit-Proof Fence simply lacks immediacy and urgency.

The end result is that Noyce’s movie looks and sounds more like cautionary dystopian sci-fi — say, The Handmaid’s Tale or a spin-off to The Road Warrior — than fact-based history lesson.

That’s not wholly a bad thing, though. While the atmosphere detracts from a sense of history, it lends a certain universality to the film. It seems to be saying: This happened once, and it could happen again.

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