- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

"Rabbit-Proof Fence" aspires to champion a trio of runaway adolescents, three girls transported from their hometown in the Outback of Western Australia, circa 1931, to a state orphanage.
The girls have been seized against the will of their mothers, unwed Aborigine women living off the dole in an outpost called Jigalong. It's located near the title landmark, a vast north-to-south barrier built a generation earlier to deter the prolific rabbit population that threatened to lay waste to all the pastureland in the west.
The fence itself was built to remedy a miscalculation by European settlers in the previous century: the introduction of rabbit breeding to Australia. A system of orphanages designed to assimilate and domesticate half-caste children was created in response to another breeding problem: sexual contact between the crews who helped build the fence and their Aborigine consorts, later dependent on government charity when their mates moved on to other pastures.
The three girls of the film followed the fence to get home. Their odyssey took three months and covered about 1,500 miles. Although the movie endeavors to capitalize on its epic scenic nature, it achieves more coherence when cooped up in the office of Kenneth Branagh as their adversary, A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the province and a sincerely brooding theorist of racial sociology.
It was his mission to breed out the Aborigine population by prohibiting all marriages between half-castes and full-blooded Aborigines. Meanwhile, the offspring of the irreversible mixed unions would be encouraged to adopt another way of life. The orphanages were meant to prepare them for domestic service while effacing all features of the Aborigine culture.
The powerful thing about this figure as reincarnated by Mr. Branagh is that he seems the most well-intentioned, conscientious and fretful of bureaucratic despots. Because the role is in the custody of an actor who has studied his subject and perceived the wisdom of playing him without a trace of caricature or condescending, self-protective disapproval, the potential emotional damage this man can do seems magnified.
The racist aberrations of the 1930s have never been approached from this exotic angle. However, Mr. Branagh has made something of a specialty of playing dedicated and disarming Nazis, notably in "Swing Kids" a decade ago.
Working with nonprofessionals as the fugitive girls, Mr. Noyce is obliged to rely on natural youth and natural surroundings to sustain the trek. These resources aren't as reliable as they might be. Not even the settings are expressively foolproof. He needs Mr. Branagh to clarify the long-distance conflict in many practical and fully articulated respects. Ultimately, the conception seems more indebted to a single accomplished actor than anything else.
The presentation does seem oversimplified when dwelling on the confinement and then escape of the girls, initially tracked by David Gulpilil as an Aborigine named Moodoo. You start to entertain the thought that Moodoo isn't trying that hard to intercept them and then budget restraints compel Neville to suspend a full-scale search.
Much of the girls' progress depends on strangers, who volunteer food, shelter and directions. The movie acquires more credibility by never asking us to believe that the girls are so attuned to the natural world that they can live off the land every day of their flight.
The girls and their mothers were reunited, but the triumph was fleeting. The girls themselves were young unwed mothers before long, and they replicated the experience of seeing their children seized and transported to the orphanages. A descendant of one of those separations, Doris Pilkington Garimara, is responsible for the source material.
**
TITLE:
"Rabbit-Proof Fence"
RATING:
PG (Fleeting profanity; episodes dealing with child abuse and poverty; thematic concentration on themes of racial and social prejudice in 1930s setting)
CREDITS:
Directed by Phillip Noyce. Screenplay by Christine Olsen, based on a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara.
RUNNING TIME:
95 minutes

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