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MOVIES | MOVIE REVIEW

Noyce's 'Fence' is built around racial divide in Australia's past

November 29, 2002|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

An old-fashioned weepie tucked inside a fiercely indicting political thriller, Phillip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence" opens in the early 1930s along a stretch of red Australian dust called Jigalong. Located in the western part of the continent, Jigalong was a depot for the transcontinental fence built by the government after the turn of the century to protect agricultural lands from a plague of rabbits. Years after the fence was erected, Jigalong had become little more than a holding station for the area's indigenous people, including 14-year-old Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi) and her two young cousins, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan), all three fathered and abandoned by white workers.

The fence was one more marker of an already divided country. By the early 20th century, Australian Aborigines had been herded onto separate lands where their lives, including the right to marry and to work, were under the complete authority of the white government. Biracial children were of particular interest, since the government looked at them as a potential source of cheap labor that could be absorbed into the white population. "Sixty years ago," said one official in 1937, "there were over 60,000 full-blooded natives in Western Australia. Today, there are only 20,000. In time, there would be none." To that end, from about 1910 to 1970, an estimated 10% of children were removed, often permanently, from their homes.

In 1931, Molly Craig and her cousins, ages 8 and 10, became part of what's known as Australia's "stolen generations" when they were spirited away from their family to a white-run dormitory 1,500 miles south of Jigalong. Dormitory, though, is too polite a word for the Dickensian nightmare painted by the filmmakers. Warehoused in clapboard shacks, the children were denied their customs and language ("We don't use that jabber here," scolds one of the white nurses) in an effort to strip the black out of them. Under constant guard, they labored at sewing tables during the day, while at night they slept in filthy bedding, using a communal slop pail for a privy. One of the crueler ironies of the children's captivity, as meted out in Noyce's film, is that if a child had the temerity to escape the camp, it was an Aboriginal man armed with a whip who was sent to bring the runaway back.

Molly lasted just one day. Taking hold of her cousins, the prepossessed 14-year-old headed for home -- by foot. For three months, the girls hid from trackers (one of whom is played by David Gulpilil, the Aboriginal boy from "Walkabout"), covering their footprints, sleeping in rabbit warrens, scavenging for something to eat and begging food off of sympathetic white female farmers. The journey was as unrelenting as the terrain and the will of the white authorities, the latter of which Noyce overplays to the point of parody, particularly in the characterization of the children's government protector, Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh). As the film's embodiment of Australia's racist past, this Social Darwinist spends much of his time reciting variations on the line, "in spite of himself, the native must be helped." All that's missing is a waxed mustache to twirl.

Based on a book by Molly's daughter, Doris Pilkington, and written for the screen by Christine Olsen, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is the first film Noyce has directed in his home country since his 1989 nail-biter "Dead Calm." In the years following, Noyce made the move to Hollywood, where he directed a series of progressively anonymous action movies, the most noteworthy of which starred Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, first in "Patriot Games," then in "Clear and Present Danger." Those were the high points. Otherwise, it was a gilded slide into the abyss with "Sliver," "The Saint" and his last major-studio outing, "The Bone Collector," in which Denzel Washington played a homicide detective who was also a quadriplegic principally, or so it appeared, so he couldn't get his hands on co-star Angelina Jolie.

"The Bone Collector" makes a startling contrast to the features Noyce has since directed, including the recent "The Quiet American." As with his adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, this new film is a genuine pursuit of seriousness -- it is, simply put, about something. Among other things, these are films about power and about the burden of history, as it weighs down not merely the oppressed but also those who bend it to their will. In this sense, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" serves as unassailable proof of Noyce's good intentions, even if as a political statement it's at once over- and under-cooked, with little memorable dialogue and neither enough moral or political nuance.

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