Rabbit-Proof Fence Review

Jigalong, Western Australia, 1931. A true story. Molly (Everlyn Sampi), her sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) live in a small Aboriginal settlement with their mothers and grandmother. The rabbit-proof fence, built after an outbreak of myxomatosis, which divides the nation north to south, is nearby. The three children are all half-caste children of long-gone white fathers. Meanwhile, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, issues an order that all half-caste children should be removed from their families and trained as servants to white society. So Molly, Daisy and Gracie are forcibly rounded up and sent to Moore River Native Settlement, 1200 miles away. The three girls escape, following the rabbit-proof fence to get home, with the authorities on their trail…

Phillip Noyce was one of the most talented directors to emerge in Australia in the 1970s, and Newsfront is one of the best films of that period. Since the mid-1980s he’s spent most of his time in Hollywood, turning out competent but essentially anonymous films like Sliver, The Saint and the two Jack Ryan films, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. So when he returned home to make Rabbit-Proof Fence on a relatively low budget, hopes were high that he had found a subject that would energise him again. Noyce has been sympathetic to Aboriginal issues since the beginning of his career. This is particularly noticeable in his very first feature, the hour-long 16mm Backroads (1977), which starred real-life Aboriginal activist Gary Foley. Given the rave reviews and box-office success of Rabbit-Proof Fence in its home country, not to mention certain efforts to discredit the film (Australia's history of racism is a very vexed issue), you might have thought that Noyce had made the film you’d hoped he would. However, to these eyes, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a film not without merit, but a disappointment nonetheless.

It’s hard to pinpoint quite why this film fails to satisfy. There’s nothing wrong with the performances of the three young leads, none of whom had acted before. Among the adults, Kenneth Branagh gives a chilling portrait of a racism that’s ingrained and institutionalised but just as virulent for all its well-meaning politeness. Neville thinks he’s acting in the Aborigines’ best interests, and can’t understand why they don’t thank him for it. David Gulpilil, who plays Moodoo the tracker, is of course an Aborigine icon himself, for films like Walkabout and The Last Wave. For a whole generation of Aussies he’ll forever be Fingerbone Bill in Storm Boy, though.

On the technical side, there’s nothing much wrong with Noyce’s direction. The Scope camerawork of Christopher Doyle (an Australian who made his reputation with Wong Kar Wai’s films in Hong Kong – Rabbit-Proof Fence marks his debut in his home country) is impressive, using different film stocks to convey the warmth of the Aboriginal settlement, the coldness of Moore River, and the sunblasted harshness of the Outback. Peter Gabriel’s score is worth the price of admission on its own.

And yet… Had this film been made in Hollywood, you might expect an emotional rollercoaster, with not a dry eye at the end of the admirably concise running time. It’s commendable that Noyce hasn’t gone in for manipulative button-pushing, but somehow he’s strayed too far in the opposite direction. Rabbit-Proof Fence is a film that you admire but which somehow fails to connect. (I saw it twice, first in the cinema then on DVD, and didn't change my mind.) The only scene that really hits home is the round-up. You can tell on some of the cast’s faces that this might be a little too close to home, and too much in recent memory, for them to be entirely comfortable. This scene goes beyond mere acting, and for a couple of minutes Rabbit-Proof Fence flickers into life.

Magna Pacific’s two-disc DVD set is encoded for Region 4 only. There are sixteen chapter stops. Menu screens are anamorphic, but not all the extras are. Subtitles are provided for the feature only.

With the picture you have a choice between the cinema ratio of 2.35:1 or a full-frame version. Rabbit-Proof Fence was shot in Super 35, so the 4:3 version isn’t panned and scanned but open-matte, with extra picture area top and bottom. Ultimately it’s up to you, but as the film was designed to be shown in 2.35:1 I’d go for that transfer, which is anamorphically enhanced. It’s very good indeed, strong and colourful where it needs to be, with strong blacks and good shadow detail. (I only played a little of the 4:3 version, which kept freezing. Fellow owners of Samsung 807s may wish to take note.)

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s not the most elaborate mix out there, with the surrounds used mostly for the score and ambient sounds, and the subwoofer filling in the base. However, it’s always clear and well balanced. There’s a Dolby Surround alternative, which is inevitably less impressive.

The audio commentary is mostly by Noyce but with brief appearances by Branagh, Gabriel, Doris Pilkington Garimara (writer of the original book) and screenwriter Christine Olsen. It’s certainly thorough and informative if none too spontaneous – Noyce sounds like he’s reading from a script.

On to Disc Two, and the main extra is a documentary, “Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence”, which is full-frame and runs 42:53. This follows Noyce in his search to find the right young Aboriginal girls to play the three lead roles. The documentary shows every stage in the process from mass auditions to final casting, including lessons from a drama coach, Rachael Maza. At times the documentary is a little too frank to be comfortable viewing, in particular the episode where one of the girls had a crisis of confidence and ran away, to be picked up shortly afterwards in a phone box, captured on video. Presumably her family authorised this to be shown, but it made me uneasy.

There are two cinema trailers: a teaser (2.35:1 non-anamorphic, 0:42) and the full version (1.85:1 non anamorphic, 2:57). The two TV spots are 16:9 anamorphic: “Chase” (0:29) and “Emotive” (0:59). The titles of the TV spots sum up a two-pronged marketing approach.

Interviews follow, all full-frame and divided into sections. The interviewees are Noyce (13:29), Olsen (2:42), executive producer David Elfick (2:44), executive producer Jeremy Thomas (0:34), Doyle (2:54), Maza (1:07) and Gabriel (8:12). This is obviously electronic presskit stuff and some of it is very superficial. You wonder why they bothered interviewing Jeremy Thomas at all if they were only going to use thirty-four seconds. Gabriel’s interview is particularly interesting when he demonstrates how he used electronically-treated natural sounds to build up his score. The biographies are brief single- or two-page jobs, also obviously derived from a press kit, and don’t even include filmographies.

Also on Disc Two is DVD-ROM material. This comprises a study guide and five newspaper articles which give a good indication of the controversy the film raised in Australia: “Colour of Prejudice” (Robert Mann), “Rabbit Proof Defence” (Noyce), “A Rabbit-Proof Fence Full of Holes” (Peter Howson and Des Moore), “First Hand Stories Outweigh Missing Files” (a collection of letters) and “A Moving Picture of Hope” (John Hewson). There are also links to the websites for Becker Entertainment (the film licensor), Magna Pacific and Peter Gabriel.

I may be in a minority for finding Rabbit-Proof Fence a disappointment, as there are plenty of people out there who think otherwise. It’s certainly well worth seeing, whatever your final reaction may be, and Magna Pacific have served it well with an excellent DVD.

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