While "Rabbit-Proof Fence" may be a somewhat simple tale, it is told beautifully, with majestic, powerful imagery and a rich score. Its acting is amazing, especially given the fact that the three leads are newcomers. The film opens in 1931 Australia, where Chief Protector of the Aborigine Populace, Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) has decided that all of the children who are the offspring of a white parent and Aborigine parent will be taken into custody, and raised by a school system, with an intent to train them to be domestic servants or factory workers. They were taken, by force, from their parents and loved ones.
"Rabbit-Proof Fence" focuses on three children: Molly (Everlyn Sampi) is 14, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) is 8 and Gracie (Laura Monaghan) is 10. Early in the film, there is a powerful and heartbreaking scene, as the three are wrestled away from their parents. They arrive at a school over a thousand miles away, but can't take the rules of the place and the fact that they've been separated from their loved ones.
After a while, the three finally make a successful escape attempt, deciding to follow the "rabbit-proof fence" that stretches 1,500 miles, and will - nine weeks later - lead them back to their home. Although they're being tracked by a local hunter (David Gulpilil, who also starred in "Walkabout") and the authorities, the girls survive on their instincts and help from others along the way.
Director Phillip Noyce, who gained fame from the small drama of "Dead Calm" and gained popularity from "Clear and Present Danger" and "Patriot Games", seems to enjoy returning to a minimalist style. At 94 minutes, the film is tight and well-paced, keeping its focus on the human story at its core rather than devoting much time to the surroundings (although we still get an idea of how sparse the land was and how harsh the conditions were). Noyce skillfully handles the tension and strongly portrays the danger the girls face from both their trackers and the environment they must journey across. There's no melodrama here, just the focus on a compelling and remarkable tale of three girls who survive on the hope that they will return home.
The three girls offer astonishing performances that are both powerful and remarkably convincing. They seem like experienced actors, even though they have never been in a film before. They are assisted not only by a good supporting cast, but by several other aspects; Phillip Noyce provides strong direction, Peter Gabriel provides a compelling, emotional score that never calls attention to himself and cinematographer Christopher Doyle provides some truly memorable images.
Overall, this is a terrific film, wonderfully portraying the bravery that these girls showed in their attempt to defy a terrible government system. The final scenes show that the horrors these strong, brave souls were had to face were not yet over - and that these Aboriginal people would never let their spirit be broken, and never give up their freedom.
VIDEO: Miramax presents "Rabbit-Proof Fence" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film's cinematography, by Christopher Doyle (although famed for his work on Wong Kar-Wai films such as "In The Mood For Love", if you've seen any movies Doyle has worked on, you'll know what an amazing talent he is) is fascinating to watch - bleak, rich and occasionally, somewhat surreal. The transfer by the studio is quite good; it's not without some flaws here and there, but the overall impression is positive. Sharpness and detail are usually very strong throughout the film; some scenes looked a little softer by intention, but most offered superb detail and clarity.
The presentation did suffer from some mild instances of edge enhancement in a few scenes, but the majority of the film was free of it. Pixelation or other compression artifacts weren't noticed, nor were any print flaws. Some grain was noticed in several scenes, but I'd guess this is an intentional element of the cinematography.
The film's color palette is bleak, especially given the locations, but seemed to be rendered accurately and without flaw. Black level remained fairly solid, while flesh tones looked natural. The edge enhancement does take away at times from an otherwise strong image, but overall, this is a very respectable effort.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is quite good, too. Peter Gabriel's haunting, tribal score is offered strongly across the front speakers, sounding rich and dynamic. The score is also reinforced somewhat by the surrounds. Enjoyable ambience - some slight insect sounds, gusts of wind - are also offered by the rear speakers. Gabriel's score is dynamic and boasts excellent clarity, while ambient sounds are crisp and sound very convincing. Dialogue is also clear and natural throughout.
EXTRAS: Director Phillip Noyce, screenwriter Susan Olsen, author Doris Pilkington, Musician Peter Gabriel and actor Kenneth Branagh (all of whom were recorded separately) provide what is truly one of the best commentaries that I've heard in ages. Noyce provides a rich, in-depth and remarkably involving discussion of his experiences in becoming involved with the screenplay; we hear - in great detail - the director's experiences trying to start "The Sum of All Fears" (Phil Alden Robinson eventually took over directing duties) and how his experiences with some of the aspects of the Hollywood system lead him back to his home of Australia to film the smaller "Rabbit-Proof Fence". He discusses many of the challenges of this production (casting, especially), gives a great deal of background about the story and speaks in great detail about the contributions of both his cast and crew. His comments about his background, his feelings about the differences between big-budget fare and smaller features and work on "Rabbit-Proof Fence" are honest, insightful, impressively organized and very, very enjoyable to listen to.
Writer Doris Pilkington (whose Mother's experiences are what her book - which was adapted into this movie - are based upon) provides a fascinating and heartbreaking account of both her experiences and what her mother had to go through in her journeys along the fence. Screenwriter Olsen also provides a very interesting discussion of the writing and research process in crafting her adaptation of the story. Noyce does provide some discussion of Gabriel's work on the score, but the composer's discussion of his work in creating a score based upon earthy, ambient sounds - he even plays some samples of elements of the score and discusses where elements of the score came from - is very involving.
This is a rare, nearly perfect commentary. It provides a tremendous amount of background about its story and educates the audience about nearly every aspect of how it reached the screen. This magnificent track is intelligent, wonderfully edited and insightful. Both fans of the film and those new to "Rabbit-Proof Fence" should absolutely give this track a listen.
The other main feature is "Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence", a 42-minute documentary that provides both a look at the production and the tragic history behind the story in the film. Director Phillip Noyce leads the presentation, taking the viewer through the remarkable casting process that went to the some of the most remote places in Australia to seek out three girls who would be right for the leads; we even view some of the early footage of star Everlyn Sampi and rehearsals for both the three lead actresses and some of the others who were among the final 16 possibilities. The documentary then follows the three girls through early rehearsals and into production, where they show their skills as actresses, and Noyce guides them through some of the more challenging and emotional scenes.
"Sneak Peek" trailers for "Quiet American", "Heaven" and "Frida" round out the disc.
Final Thoughts: A remarkable tale that is extraordinarily powerful and moving, Phillip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is a masterpiece; a film that succeeds because of a strong focus, an effective and minimalist style, excellent direction, marvelous performances and fantastic music and imagery. Miramax's DVD includes an outstanding commentary track, very good documentary and fine audio/video quality for the feature. Highly recommended.