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film: 'Proof' Positive

After directing such Hollywood blockbusters as "Patriot Games," Aussie Phillip Noyce proves he can still deliver small, personal films with an emotional punch.


In a season unusually blessed with an abundance of terrific movies exploring the complicated mother-daughter relationship, Phillip Noyce's lyric and lovely "Rabbit-Proof Fence" may provide the most heart-wrenching demonstration of that bond. What Noyce and his fine cast present will at first shock you, then anger you, and finally, move you with its simple elegance. Based on shameful, true events in Australian history, the film begins with three Aboriginal girls being forcibly taken from their mothers in 1931, their removal mandated as part of the government's solution to the "colored problem."

The country's chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia is one A. O. Neville (the marvelous Kenneth Branagh), who's decreed that mixed-race children must be taken from their families and trained as domestic servants and farm laborers. But when he was formulating this arrogant national solution, he did not reckon with Molly, Gracie and Daisy. These three little girls simply want to go home.

Even if it were directed and acted with less style and heart, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" would be more than worthy of praise, just for bringing to light such an astoundingly lengthy and disgraceful chapter in Australian history. Incredibly, this practice of removing "half-caste" Aboriginal children from their homes continued from 1905 to 1971. 1971! So many children were ripped from their families that, within the hushed halls of government, they became known as the Stolen Generations.

"Rabbit-Proof Fence" is based on a 1996 book by Molly's daughter, who notes in her writing that her mother, now elderly, was anxious for her story to be told before she died. And Noyce does her story justice. In every scene, every sweeping vista of the raw, forbidding expanse that is Australia, Noyce captures the desolate beauty and the monumental task that lies ahead for his determined trio.

Molly, Gracie and Daisy, torn with agonizing shrieks and howls from their home in Jigalong, are taken some 1,200 miles south to the Moore River Native Settlement, to be trained as maids and learn to sing "Swanee River." It turns out that this musical idealization of plantation life is Neville's favorite song. And nothing depicts Neville's benign evil more than seeing these sad children trying to please as they sing. Branagh, looking whiter than usual, gives another amazing performance, portraying a man caught up in his own self-righteous, patronizing and condescending beliefs.

Noyce and screenwriter Christine Olsen know to keep the story simple. We watch as the diminutive powerhouses make their way north, begging or stealing food. Their lifeline and compass is a government-erected fence; somehow Molly knows if she follows it, it will lead her home. In truth, most of the drama in "Rabbit-Proof Fence" comes from Christopher Doyle's otherworldly cinematography mixed with Peter Gabriel's original score. But more than anything, the image seared into your cortex will be the sharp eyes of 13-year-old acting newcomer, Everlyn Sampi, who plays Molly.

Sampi rarely faces the camera; her actual gaze eludes us. But there's no question about her strength and her naive willfulness: They jump off the screen, hitting each viewer where he or she is most vulnerable. Early in their incredible journey, Molly is asked by a friendly hunter if she really knows what she's doing. The journey, he tells her, is more than a 1,000 miles. Without comment, Molly gazes at him, unfazed by the number he's told her. Then she simply nods. It matters not to her the distance involved, this ragtag lost girl, leading her sister and cousin, has the strength of any man.

Now, as I alluded to in a preview of this past holiday's movie scene, there's something of a surprise ending to "Rabbit-Proof Fence." I will not spoil it for you, just know that is a rare, unexpected treat. Be assured also that it perfectly delineates the often sad weight of history, the bloody sweat of perseverance, and most importantly, the endurance of love.

Noyce's first film in his native Australia since "Dead Calm" 13 years ago, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" underscores his directorial range. Without stooping to cheap sentimentality or sensationalism, Noyce delivers a straightforward examination of a disgraceful chapter in a far too-lengthy history of man's inhumanity to his fellow man.

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