[Screen It]

(2002) (Everlyn Sampi, Kenneth Branagh) (PG)

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Drama: After being kidnapped and relocated by their own government, three mixed-blood Aborigine kids escape and set out to walk over one-thousand miles back to their home.
It's Western Australia, 1931 and the Chief Protector of Aborigines, AO Neville (KENNETH BRANAGH), has decided to enforce the law that "half-caste" children of mixed heritage - namely white fathers and Aborigine mothers - must be removed from their homelands so that they won't grow up and then further dilute the Aborigine race.

Accordingly, he's sent one of his men, Constable Riggs (JASON CLARKE), to round up three Aboriginal girls, 14-year-old Molly (EVERLYN SAMPI), her 8-year-old sister, Daisy (TIANNA SANSBURY) and their 10-year-old cousin, Gracie (LAURA MONAGHAN) and take them 1,200 miles from their home at the Jigalong Depot to the Moore River Native Settlement.

They're to be trained there to be domestic servants along with other such girls and are forbidden to speak in their native tongue. Should any of them attempt to escape, a tracker, Moodoo (DAVID GULPILIL), will set out, find and return them to the Settlement.

Yet, Molly can't stand the place, its rules and regulations, or the fact that she's away from her mother (NINGALI LAWFORD) and other family members and friends. Thus, she convinces the two other girls to accompany her in escaping and returning home. Without any real plan or supplies, the girls then make their escape.

Along the way, they eventually come across the rabbit-proof fence - designed to keep rabbits out of the farmlands -- that traverses the entire continent. Remembering that it runs through Jigalong, they decide to follow it. Yet, Neville eventually realizes that they're doing just that and so sends Moodoo and Riggs on a mission to intercept the girls and return them to the Settlement for appropriate punishment.

As the girls make their way across the continent with help from various strangers and former inhabitants of the settlement, including Mavis (DEBORAH MAILMAN), they try to avoid those after them and safely make their way home.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Every year and all around the globe, tens of thousands of people participate in torturous, several hour races known as marathons. Named after the Grecian city from which a messenger ran to Athens to announce a victory over the Persians in 490 B.C., the race is the end all, be all for long distance runners.

Yet, not one of those competitors has anything on three kids back in the 1930s. While they didn't set any speed records - although the distance they covered in the amount of time they traveled is impressive - they did walk some 1,500 miles in 9 weeks, often without shoes and across treacherous terrain.

The kids - 14 and under -- didn't do so for sport or pleasure, however, but instead to return home after the government kidnapped and decided to relocate them. In what sort of place and by what peoples would such a heinous crime occur, you might ask. None other than Australia, the continent once intended and used as a British penal colony.

With the influx of white workers across the land, many children of mixed ethnicity were born from them and the local Aborigine population. As a result, the government - in its infinite wisdom - decided that to prevent the dilution of that race, such "half-caste" children would be sent away to become indentured servants where they wouldn't come in contact with any pure-blood Aborigines.

14-year-old Molly, her 8-year-old sister, Daisy, and their 10-year-old cousin, Gracie were those three kids who decided they didn't like being relocated and thus set off to walk back home. To do so, they ended up using the continent-long rabbit-proof fence that was created by their fathers and others to keep the rabbits out of the farmlands.

Their tale is now being told in "Rabbit-Proof Fence," a surprisingly engrossing, engaging and uplifting tale of the human spirit. As directed by Phillip Noyce ("The Quiet American," "Dead Calm"), who works from novice screenwriter Christine Olsen's adaptation of "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence" (which was written by one of the walker's subsequent daughters), this is one of those rare examples of true visual storytelling.

While a few details would be hard to discern without the accompanying verbal dialogue, the story pretty much tells itself so well that one could watch it without sound and still follow and be moved by what occurs.

It's one of those stories that would be hard to buy if it weren't true, but the 90-some minute film does a good job in making the viewer believe and root for the girls' success. Credibly and naturalistically played by Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan - whose performances belie the fact that this is their feature film debut - their characters effortlessly engage the viewer.

That's due to them being of the classic, wrongly imprisoned variety of characters, much like Harrison Ford's Dr. Kimble in "The Fugitive." You want them to succeed because they're innocent, have been wronged, and are trying to reclaim their freedom that was taken away from them.

Like that film, this one also features a character who's tracking them. While David Gulpilil ("Crocodile Dundee," "Walkabout") might not have the Hollywood flair of Tommy Lee Jones, he's entirely credible in the role and provides the necessary complications and peril to make the drama work and move the plot forward.

That said, and despite the girls being in danger of being discovered from time to time, the film isn't quite the thriller that it might have been. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but those expecting such a film are apt to be disappointed. While moving, the film also never really hits the big emotional moments, although it's certainly not void of such elements.

The only recognizable face on display is that of Kenneth Branagh ("Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," "Love's Labour's Lost") who plays the government official - a.k.a. the villain - who thinks he's actually helping the girls. He only has one scene with them, and otherwise is used as cutaway fodder once the girls make their move.

Ningali Lawford (making her debut) plays the sister's mother who we occasionally see, Deborah Mailman ("The Monkey's Mask") embodies one of the former inmates who helps the girls and Jason Clarke ("Our Lips Are Sealed," "Risk") plays yet another man who's also on the girls' trail. Even so, this is really the girls' story and the film smartly focuses most of its time on them as they make their way through the varied Australian landscapes.

While the film has an expected and understandable episodic nature - with the girls crossing one type of terrain after the next and encountering various characters along the way, all over the course of those nine weeks - the final product thankfully doesn't feel terribly fractured.

Instead, it's rather engrossing as one roots for the girls to succeed. Simple in structure and storytelling, yet effectively engaging, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is pure visual storytelling and rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 21, 2002 / Posted December 25, 2002

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