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DVD/Blu-ray of the week: 'Rabbit-Proof Fence'

A number of Miramax releases are hitting DVD racks and on-line services in low-price ($6.99) editions under the series title "Miramax Classics." Few deserve that "classic" designation more than Phillip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence" (2002), which has just been reissued today. I love it as drama, as protest, as moviemaking and as poetry.

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Set in 1931 Australia, it's the real-life great-escape story of three half-white, half-Aboriginal girls who flee a government settlement where "half-castes" learn lily-white ways. Director Noyce films it with instinctual understanding, turning blunt deeds into razor-sharp expressions of rebellion or fellow-feeling. It's about family and the meaning of home.

The girls' white fathers helped construct the continent-striding fence that protects Australian farmland and pasture from foraging rabbits. Now these men are only memories. The girls and their mothers are part of the "mob" living in the Jigalong Community near the Gibson Desert. Even though they rely on rations from the Jigalong Depot, they still carry on ancient rituals and practice skills such as hunting. When one kid tells a worker that her home is on the other side of the fence and asks for the location of his home, she puts a positive spin on the famous lines from Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man:"

Home is the place where, when you have to go there/They have to take you in.

Unfortunately, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, believes that the progressive response to Australia's growing number of half-caste children is to breed them with pure whites until the Aboriginal strain disappears. Branagh, an actor often subtler than his critics, brings Neville the worn-out fervor of an idealistic bureaucrat desperately seeking money and power to back up his bad ideas. He seizes half-caste children from their mobs and places them in camps where they learn English language and culture and menial tasks. Then they become wives or hired women for all-white settlers.

In the 1970s and 1980s, director Noyce made meaty films and polished thrillers Down Under - including Nicole Kidman's 1989 breakthrough picture, "Dead Calm" - before winning lucre and acclaim in Hollywood as a director of intelligent suspense films, such as Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan movies. But in "Rabbit-Proof Fence" Noyce finds a pure, tenacious voice that communicates with the viewer heart to heart. He intuits his way into the core of his three heroines: the courageous, headstrong 14-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi), the tiny, resilient 9-year-old Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and the 10-year-old cousin of these sisters, the emotionally elusive Gracie (Laura Monaghan). Noyce puts an audience smack in the middle of their actions by superbly honing the words of Christine Olsen's script and the sights and sounds of two wonder-struck collaborators, cinematographer Chris Doyle and composer Peter Gabriel.

Without trickery, an aerial camera sweeps over shrubbery and makes it look like a reef on the ocean. From that opening moment, you know you're in the hands of masters. The way the inroductory scenes are lit, the Jigalong grassland has a subtle warmth and luminosity that reflect the place it holds in the heroines' souls. The Aboriginal flavor of Gabriel's music links up with Noyce's emphasis on natural clatter to heighten our aural sensitivity. After we learn that Neville has targeted Molly, Daisy and Gracie for capture, we hear as keynotes of doom the screech of a constable's vehicle and its crackle as it crushes debris. When the girls are grabbed, the old women hit their heads with rocks and then collapse face down on the ground, folding their bodies into lumps, as if the atrocity has turned them into stone.

You see the girls in a wooden cage on a train hurtling them across the continent; you watch another inmate of the Moore River Native Settlement, who tries escaping before their arrival, tossed into a solitary shack. But the visual and emotional harshness of the action doesn't overpower the movie's humanity.

Noyce never loses his grip on the complexity within his simplicity. When Molly spurns the sun-baked vacuity of the camp, with its force-fed white proprieties, and decides to walk 1,500 miles back to Jigalong, Daisy and Gracie don't immediately go along. Molly, the eldest, knows their heartland best. She accepts the role of general to her band of three. As Molly, Sampi takes charge of the movie, with a performance combining sensitivity and elemental strength; Sansbury, as Daisy, and Monaghan, as Grace, reveal their vulnerabilities without losing their vibrancy or dignity.

There's a touch of magic to the way the rabbit-proof fence becomes their guideway back home. But their journey to Jigalong dramatizes the awfulness of Neville's policies every step of the way. And always on their tail is the master tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil), who has kept working at the Settlement only because his daughter is an inmate there. Gulpilil, who debuted 40 years ago in Nicolas Roeg's groundbreaking "Walkabout," makes attentiveness charismatic. In an almost-silent performance, he brings an audience inside the consciousness of a man capable of quiet maneuvering for justice.

The more forbidding the landscape, the deeper cinematographer Doyle digs into it: he arrives at an eye-opening anti-gorgeousness. Gabriel's music has a ringing potency to the final cry on the soundtrack. And Noyce brilliantly offsets the direness of the action with the Aborigines' sustaining mysticism. Like the girls, we cling to the sight of a "spirit bird"; we experience, as they do, the women of Jigalong singing them home. By the end, the movie put me in mind of another Frost poem, "Mending Wall:"

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out/And to whom I was like to give offence.

As Molly follows the rabbit-proof fence, she bends it to her own meaning; she walls in hope, walls out despair, and gives offence only to the misguided bigots who yearn for her captivity.

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