There is little in the American movies of Australian director Philip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Bone Collector) that prepared audiences for the spare, understated feel of last year's The Quiet American, in which Michael Caine gave one of the finest performances of his career. But audiences who were able to catch Rabbit Proof Fence before seeing American have already been exposed to the director's capacity for dramatic simplicity as evidenced by Noyce's version of the Graham Green novel. I wasn't able to see them in that sequence, so I came to Fence with high expectations--and left the theater with them very much intact.
In a brief hour and a half, Noyce presents this haunting story of half-caste aborigine children forcibly removed from their families and placed in quasi-orphanages in order to better acclimate them to Australia's white culture. (The film is set in the 1930's, but the practice it explores apparently continued for decades thereafter.) Like a cinematic marathoner, Noyce strips his story to its lean essentials; two sisters, Molly and Daisy, along with their cousin Gracie, (ranging in age from 8 to 14) are dragged from their mothers' arms near a station in the outback and taken 1200 miles south to a convent school for Anglo enculturation. Molly, the oldest, promptly decides that the only rational way to respond to this insanity is to reject it; she gathers up her two young charges and, with little more than the school-issued clothing on their backs, sets off on the long journey home, using a 1500 mile long fence which the government has built to control the country's rabbit population as her guide. In starkly beautiful footage, Noyce devotes the bulk of his film to following this trio on their improbable trek through some of the world's most desolate landscape.
Kenneth Branagh plays the government minister in charge of the program from which Molly and her sisters escape; he's presented as a bureaucrat who's intent on stamping our miscegenation by breeding out half-castes in the interest of producing a more homogeneous Australian population. Branagh's character is a bit more insufferable than necessary, but the five actors who play the three young children, their mother and the aborigine tracker who purses them inhabit their roles with a quiet, nonsensical directness. Noyce surrounds these six members of his cast with a collection of white Australians involved in the pursuit who convey sympathy towards the girls without once suggesting they consider the government's program a horrible misuse of power; the racism thus displayed grows all the more telling because it's so off-hand.
Utilizing a collection of tribal songs intermingled with sound effects that heighten the audience's appreciation of the topography of the story's setting, Noyce's camera presents these juvenile fugitives matter-of-factly, allowing their personalities to evolve directly from the hurdles their impetuously undertaken route involves. There are no heroics here, Noyce suggests, but abundant heroism; the film ends with some remarkable
footage about the aftermath of this historically based story, (taken from a book written by Molly's real life daughter) that neatly underscores the director's revulsion with a system which endured for so long and produced so much pain.
I haven't had the chance to see the movies Noyce made earlier in his career, (the ones he shot in Australia before moving to the U.S. and venturing into the commercial mainstream) but on the basis of his two latest works, this is a director to watch. Until his next project comes along, this haunting study of racial oppression, with its crisp cinematography, eerily appropriate soundtrack and naturalistic performances deserves all the praise it has already garnered. There hasn't been a better movie about pursuit through a hostile environment since Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey nearly 40 years ago and the impact of this brilliantly angry polemic towers over that film in every way.
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