Casual moviegoers oblivious to modern Australian history may be rather perplexed by the title of director Philip Noyce’s (“Clear and Present Danger”) “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” The few, and proud, aware of the film’s historical context, however, likely appreciate the fence’s significance, aside from its knack for deterring pesky hares. The fence, which effectively bisected Australia, served as a homeward guide to three young aboriginal girls, Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monagahan), following their escape from a governmental reconditioning camp intended to purge the Australian white population of Aboriginal blood and culture.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Miramax
Personal log, day 14 — I still cannot shake the feeling that I am continually being followed by a man with a riding crop and the dog from “Frasier.”

Noyce, a native Australian, employs the girls’ dismaying tale as a microcosmic study of his country’s unjust political and social policies of the time; consequently, his primary goal is realism. Aside from vignettes of Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh, “Othello”), the colonial superintendent of the Aborigines, in his urban office, the plot of “Rabbit-Proof Fence” unfolds entirely in the scorched, desolate Australian outback. The setting of the film is perhaps its strongest tenet, as the landscape alone evokes pathos within audiences, not to mention the struggle of the three young girls through it.

Limited character development also contributes to the film’s realism, insofar as it enhances the girls’ emotional appeal. Molly, Daisy and Gracie are all children who initially have limited conceptions of their nation’s state of affairs. They know that they love being with their mother and living lives unencumbered by government intervention. Upon being declared “half-castes” and being seized by government officials, the girls’ emotions are shattered, leaving them distrustful and angry towards all those whom they encounter. When sent to a reconditioning camp, the girls isolate themselves and remain rather taciturn, a condition that further develops after their escape and subsequent travel home, leaving their personalities to be rather enigmatic.

The girls’ personalities, or lack thereof, play directly into the hands of cinematographer Christopher Doyle (“Made”), who uses his camera as an emotional conduit between the girls and the audience. Doyle captures detailed facial expressions with simple camera angles and methodical zooms, forcing viewers to absorb the characters’ often painful, wrenching emotions. Not only the girls are filmed in this manner, however. Doyle frequently captures Branagh’s vile smirk, which is reminiscent of his role as Iago. Perhaps the most intriguing visage, though, is that of “the tracker.” A nameless Aboriginal man who has been hired by Neville’s agency to track “half-castes,” the tracker is perhaps the most enigmatic and reticent character of the film, often expressionless and noticeably more loyal to his people than to his de jure employers.

Albeit mundane and overly rhythmic in certain regards, the score of “Rabbit” (composed by Peter Gabriel) may very well be the film’s linchpin. Aside from the initial kidnapping and subsequent sequences at the reconditioning camp from which the girls escape, the majority of the story’s duration focuses on the girls’ trek along the rabbit-proof fence. Gabriel’s score greatly enhances the film’s palatability, as it provides a crucial rhythm to their often-tiresome quest.

Technicalities aside, Noyce’s film succeeds through its emotional and personal appeal. Culminating the girls’ epic journey with actual film footage of them as elderly women, Noyce strikes a personal chord with viewers who likely have no prior knowledge of or concern for the story. “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is undeniably demoralizing throughout and relegates plot and character development in favor of emotional appeal and realism, but the latter qualities make it well worth seeing. It tempers a historical tragedy with the most visceral human instincts, forging an emotive work that is also intellectually engaging.

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