Of all the crimes that white Eurotrash has to answer for, meaning Brits, Canadians, Australians, Belgians, French, Germans and Americans, their treatment of indigenous peoples is surely at the top of the list. "Rabbit-Proof Fence" tells the true story of an episode in 1931, a time when Australia took every half-Aboriginal child from their mothers (it was the fathers who were always white), brought them to boarding schools and trained them to become servants to their white masters. This was done in the expectation that by the third generation the blackness would be bred out of their descendents and Australia would be a more purely white society. It was a policy beyond condemnation and one that continued, the film tells us, until 1970. 1970!
In the film, as in real life, three aboriginal girls - two sisters, 13 and 7, and their cousin, 10 - are seized from their families in the Northern Territories and taken - in a cage - to a school in the south, where they are to learn to be white and speak only English. Molly, the oldest, decides that they will try to escape and go home. How? By walking 1300 miles across the continent. The film is the story of their journey, pursued by both the white police and an aboriginal tracker who works for them (David Gulpilil).
It is a story that is both heartbreaking and beautiful; Molly's resourcefulness (she is played by a remarkable child named Everlyn Sampi) is astounding. She knows how to hide, how to cover their tracks, how to mislead the pursuers. For much of the way they follow the rabbit-proof fence that was constructed across the continent to keep the rabbits, introduced by Europeans as food but quickly breeding out of control, away from the country's cultivated farm and grazing land. But the fence also cuts across the desert for hundreds of miles, far from any kind of help or supply for the girls.
If this were a re-created documentary of that epic journey, letting the people and the actions speak for themselves, it would be a film for the ages. But director Phillip Noyce has treated it like a melodrama, heightening the tension needlessly, never letting any scene play out in its proper time, and drawing from his white actors some sadly amateurish performances. The worst, sadly, is Kenneth Branagh, playing Mr. Neville, the director of aboriginal services for the government. I don't believe he has given a worse performance since his sixth-grade play. He is an evil caricature, a posturer who brings not a shred of believability to his role and plays it as though waiting to be hissed off the stage by the audience.
But somehow the power of the story survives, and if you are not in tears as the girls reach their home to reunite with their mother, you will be torn to shreds by the closing titles and the shots of the two sisters as they are today. "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is a breathtaking experience if you just get past the film.