Both gifts are clearly exhibited in the first of two Noyce releases this year, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” (the other being “The Quiet American”). Fence, the story of three young Aboriginal girls fleeing their captors in 1930s Australia, is both a character study of will and courage and a photographic essay of the country’s overpowering environment. Noyce, who has climbed the ranks of American cinema with edgy political thrillers like “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games”, clearly changes gears with this return to his native soil, trading big-budget Hollywood fare for an exploration of a brutal truth swept under the proverbial rug.
To many, Australia is the sunny land down under, surrounded by white beaches and sandy surf, but the country is mainly a dry, arid desert with choking temps and a vastness that has swallowed many travelers whole. From the film’s first beat, DOP Chris Doyle’s wide-angle camera blinds the viewer with the open, yellow wasteland that is the setting for most of the story, and a character in and of itself.
From the onset, we meet the film’s three protagonists – Molly, Daisy and Gracie, three young Aboriginal girls living with their family on a reserve in Northern Australia. The girls are half-cast, a mixed race of aboriginal and European descent which flourished as foreign settlers began traveling through the vast Australian countryside. Unbeknownst to them, a special committee has been set up to contain this mixing, headed by A. O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines (Kenneth Branagh). Neville, who is as well-meaning as he is ignorant, decrees that all half-cast children be placed on a special reserve where they can be civilized and assimilated into white culture.
Without notice, the girls are snatched from their families and taken 2000km away into the Western outback, forced to take part in this “social education,” where life is sufficient but devoid of the love and affection they had at home. Molly, the oldest of the girls, takes matter into her own hands when she decides to escape, dragging the younger girls with her. The girls’ only hope of finding their way home is to follow a mesh rabbit-proof fence that crisscrossed the country and divided it from north to south.
Noyce arms his protagonists with only their wits and a deep-seeded desire to find their way back, but we know the girls also have a natural instinct for the land around them. Their seemingly impossible journey is both a battle against these harsh surrounds and a test of their own wills and mental strength.
Noyce is wonderful at constructing shadow narratives, masking this simple homeward bound plotline with a bold and daring commentary on his country’s evil past. The girls are a small part of a shockingly colossal population called “the lost generation,” a people who were virtually wiped out through a slow but determined cultural genocide. The result is a nation largely reeling from an identity crisis, attempting to incorporate immigration into its modern policies but refusing to come to terms with its native beginnings. Noyce and screenwriter Christine Olsen confront these demons head-on and manage to create an entertaining and evocative story all the same.
Where the film ultimately fails is in its characterization of the three girls, who are empowered with a sense of courage and determination but no critical transformation by the film’s end. Missing in this simple tale is a definitive character arc that is the crux of any story that spends most of it’s time with its protagonists. The result leaves the audience educated but not moved, an element that tarnishes a near-perfect film.
Noyce receives full marks for taking his camera to a place rarely visited, of shattering a nation’s rose-colored glasses and blasting the doors off a closet filled with ugly monsters. One only wishes he would have spent a little more time working on his character development before tackling the demons ahead.