Rabbit-Proof Fence: a superficial tale doing no justice to its sources

Philip Noyce, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” (2002)

Visually this is a beautiful film with an emphasis on the harsh desert and semi-desert environments of Western Australia – but this celebration of courage and resilience is marred by a formulaic, almost stereotyped presentation that does not do much justice to the material, both fiction and non-fiction, on which it is based. In early 1930s Western Australia, three young girls, sisters Molly (Everlyn Sampi) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are living with their mothers’ family at Jigalong, a remote Aboriginal community in the Pilbara region, when they are forcibly removed to the Moore River Native Settlement, an internment camp in southwest WA and hundreds of miles away from Jigalong: the intention for these three girls is to train them as domestic servants for white families. The order for their removal has come from A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), a WA public servant holding the position of Chief Protector of Aborigines who fervently believes that children of mixed Aboriginal / European ancestry – as Molly, Daisy and Gracie happen to be – must be removed from their Aboriginal families and brought up in white European society so that eventually they will intermarry with white people and their offspring will do so too, and the Aboriginal genetic inheritance will eventually die out. (At the time, the general belief among white Australian society was that full-blooded Aboriginal people were dying out and their cultures were dying out as well.) After spending a couple of days at Moore River, Molly decides to get the hell out of the place and, taking Daisy and Gracie, escapes the settlement during Sunday church service. Once the administrators and nuns there realise the girls are missing, they notify Neville in Perth who organises the police search for the children. The searchers include a formidable tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil), who has apparently never failed to find a runaway or fugitive.

Once the girls are on the run, the film basically becomes a formulaic contest between the girls and their pursuers: can the girls find the Rabbit-Proof Fence which will help lead them back to their mothers and grandmother in Jigalong before the police and Moodoo find them? Or will the girls succumb first to the vagaries of the physical environment – the hot, harsh desert sun, the constant need for water, the dramatic contrasts between daytime and nighttime temperatures, the dangerous animals they might meet – as they journey on foot for weeks following the fence? While the girls barely manage to evade their pursuers – unfortunately Gracie falls for a ruse hatched by Neville and is captured by the police – Neville himself comes up against police resistance to a wild goose chase after three young fugitives and against his own limited departmental budget.

The thin and often implausible plot and uneven acting – Sampi is good but Branagh and Gulpilil are very much under-used in their respective roles – diminish this film about courage and resilience, forcing it to rely on its cinematography for much of its drama. This leads to jaw-dropping situations where the girls, often in the nick of time, find people willing to offer them food and shelter: white people are just as likely to help them as Aboriginal people do, and Aboriginal people are as likely to betray them as white people might be expected to do – as Gracie learns to her cost. The most astounding moment comes at the film’s climax when the girls are reunited with their relatives in a mystical telepathic way that is insulting to Aboriginal people and their cultures. Oddly, scenes in which the girls might hunt for meat and dig for plants to eat and water to drink – in other words, scenes demonstrating how the children are at home in an environment that defeats the white people – are lacking.

Gulpilil at least is able to suggest through his facial expressions and non-verbal gestures that his character Moodoo secretly admires the girls for their audacious actions and actually wants them to succeed – there are moments where he appears to know where the girls are hiding but deliberately chooses not to approach them or alert others of where they are. Branagh underplays Neville but the character comes off looking almost like a religious fanatic, fervidly convinced that what he is doing for the children will benefit them. Unfortunately the film says very little about the history and nature of a society in which a fanatical bureaucrat like Neville is able to rise to power and make arbitrary decisions that tear families apart and cause suffering that can last through generations.

The film might have done rather better if it had had a voiceover narration from an actor playing the adult Molly or Daisy who might have mused over the motives that the white people must have had in wanting to separate children from their families simply because the children were of mixed ancestry. Some historical background to the film’s events could have been handy as well for audiences unfamiliar with an Australia obsessed with racial hygiene and hell-bent on eliminating non-white cultures and influences in its territory. We are left with a film that has intriguing promise with its story of three determined young girls but which fails to deliver and instead presents a superficially told tale.