Rabbit-Proof Fence – The Quiet American



Australia (Aus/UK) 2002 : Phillip Noyce : 94 mins



USA (USA/Australia) 2002 : Phillip Noyce : 101 mins

“Why is Peter Gabriel always following us?” asked Mark E Smith on The Fall’s ‘A Past Gone Mad’ (from 1992’s The Infotainment Scan LP.) It’s a sentiment which the three young heroines of Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence would be forgiven for sharing: not only must they trek 1,500 miles across the merciless Australian outback – escaping a harsh detention-camp in search of the relatives from whom they’ve been so cruelly snatched by the government – but their every weary step is accompanied by Gabriel’s grating, incessantly “ethnic” instrumental soundtrack.

It’s typical of a film which isn’t content simply to tell its remarkable story straight, instead preferring to slightly amp up the sentiment in a manipulative fashion that’s as coarsening as it is counterproductive. Anyone prone to over-estimating the impact of a cinematographer upon a movie, for instance, should contrast the work done by Christopher Doyle here with his radical, eye-popping work for Asian directors like Wong Kar-Wai. Noyce channels Doyle’s protean skills into a depressingly familiar series of images – culminating in a gloopy slow-motion climax in which the characters are reduced to silhouettes against the achingly picturesque down-under sunset and Gabriel goes into overdrive.

Underneath it all, however, lies a fine, professional script (Christine Olsen adapted the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, daughter of one of the trekking trio) which dramatises, in brisk, no-nonsense terms, a shameful episode of Australian history that encapsulates decades of prejudicial treatment endured by the aboriginal peoples. Until 1970 it was official government policy to remove fair-skinned ‘half-caste’ children from aboriginal homes and transplant them to white families, with the intention of ‘breeding out’ aboriginal characteristics and thus preventing the creation of what the operation’s supervisor A O Neville (a clipped Kenneth Branagh, sans upper lip) refers to as “an unwanted third race.”

This is the fate suffered in 1931 by sisters Molly (Everlyn Sampi) and Daisy Craig (Tianna Sansbury) and their cousin Gracie Fields (Laura Monaghan). Almost immediately absconding from the strict camp where they’re held in preparation for their new ‘homes’, they follow the continent-straddling rabbit-proof fence that will eventually lead them all the way back to their family. But expert tracker Moodoo (David Gulpilil) is soon dispatched in hot pursuit.

In its attempts to please as wide an audience as possible, Rabbit-Proof Fence takes some dubious decisions – not least having the three girls converse among themselves in English, when it’s been established early on that the aborigines universally prefer to speak in their own (government-repressed) tongue. This results in some occasional awkwardness in the youngsters’ line-delivery, but Sampi and co nevertheless manage to convincingly convey the girls’ spirit and resourcefulness – even if at times the film is rathe too happy to present them as mournful moppets in physical extremis.

Just as Molly is careful to avoid leaving any sign of the girls’ progress, meanwhile, Noyce is equally punctilious to erase any directorial imprint on his movie – this is a slick, old-fashioned filming of material which could perhaps have benefited from a few rougher edges. This safe-hands approach proves more successful with Noyce’s other late-2002 literary adaptation, The Quiet American (filmed after Rabbit-Proof Fence, but released roughly simultaneously so that both can qualify for Oscar consideration).

Faithfully adapting Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan’s script is the story of an unusual love-triangle in 1952 Vietnam prefiguring that country’s noisy entry into the global consciousness a decade later. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is the (London) Times’ correspondent in Saigon, where he lives with his much younger local girlfriend Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen, well-cast as “the most beautiful girl” in the city) – the pair are unable to marry because Fowler’s Catholic wife back home in England refuses to grant a divorce. Grizzled veteran Fowler half-heartedly chronicles the chaotic local political scene, which is soon entangled further by the arrival of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a bespectacled, bookish American ostensibly in the area to carry out humanitarian projects. Making no attempt to hide his infatuation with Phuong, Pyle strikes up an oddly courteous friendship with Fowler – who soon discovers there’s much to this ‘quiet American’ than meets the eye.

Though there’s no shortage of incident in the story, The Quiet American deliberately avoids heading down the ‘political thriller’ avenue. And by framing the story as a long flashback, Hampton and Schenkkan have sufficient nerve to ‘give away’ the ending of their film at the start. But this isn’t so much a ‘who-dunnit’ as a ‘why-dunnit’ – with a suitably Greene-esque emphasis on ambiguous morality and conscience, tracing the painful intersections of the personal and the political.

Mercifully dodging the clunky absurdities that marred the superficially similar John Boorman clunker The Tailor of Panama, Noyce (with cinematographer Doyle) instead creates a convincing background – both chronological and geographic – for the drama, then lets his actors get on with things. A wise move: Caine is on top form, doling out Fowler’s pithy observations with just the right tone of wry, bemused, low-key humour. And Fraser’s fleshy, foetal features are perfect for Pyle’s sweatily devious innocence, his proto-CIA rectitude slightly deliquescent in the fetid Saigon dusk.

20th October, 2002
(Rabbit-Proof Fence seen 13th October, Ster Century Leeds: Leeds Film Festival closing gala. The Quiet American seen 4th October, Odeon Mansfield)

by Neil Young
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