Toward Complexity: the Moral Uses of Melodrama and Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence

Dean Duncan

The term “melodrama” is one of the trickiest words in the arts to define. The original Greek literally means “song-play,” and it has come down to us as a pejorative reference to silliness or emotional excess. Somewhere in-between, however, is a dramatic genre characterized, among other qualities, by clear moral distinction. Melodrama makes suggestions or gives instruction relating to right behaviour through over-simplification: good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated, and their aims and objectives are just as clearly right or wrong. There is, however, a paradox here. It is true that melodrama can bring issues to our attention, and it is plied frequently to make good points about race or class or gender. Melodrama can create a sense of outrage, which may be the first step toward action, and can move us to compassion as we become aware of and begin to identify with the downtrodden. The problem is that the simplification frequently doesn't acknowledge the complications in most every issue, the nuances of most every position, or the complexity in every person. Melodrama may be appropriately agitating, and might in fact lead us to action, but an unmixed diet leaves us ill prepared for the work and time, negotiation and reconciliation necessary for citizenly activity.

All this is especially important as it relates to children's media. It may be that the heightened emotions and clear polarities of melodrama coincide with a child's moral sense; “children,” says author G.K. Chesterton, “are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” This is not melodramatic simplemindedness, but clear-eyed, still loving, moral clarity. A story in this key, with accessible distinctions between virtue and evil, may provide a good first step toward knowledge, even toward gainful adulthood. The problem is that, at least in films in wide release, we rarely get past this first step.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is the exception, an excellent, even ideal combination of simple outrage, substance, and complication. The film, directed by Australian Phillip Noyce and adapted by Christina Olsen from a memoir by Doris Pilkington, is set in 1931 and concerns a 1500 mile trek across Australia along a fence designed to keep crop-destroying rabbits from coming south. From 1923 to the early 1970s, Australian government policy involved taking “half caste” children of native mothers and white fathers from aboriginal communities and inserting them into European society with the object of "breed[ing] out the black" in them. The idea was to prepare them for integration at best and domestic servitude at least. The situation presents both melodramatic opportunities and dangers—aboriginal idealization, European presumption and perfidy—and it would be easy to exaggerate these. Indeed, with the stunning children (Molly, Gracie and Daisy, played by Everlyln Sampi, Laura Monagham, and Tianna Sansbury), and the more or less uncategorically villainous Mr. Neville (effectively underplayed by Kenneth Branagh), poles are clearly in place, and they are maintained throughout the film. But there is certainly more at work than the obvious melodramatic opposites. To be sure, the abduction scene, when booted, gun-toting government kidnappers snatch the children from their mothers and take them to a facility hundreds of miles away, is unbearable. The cruelty, however, is not exaggerated; there is a sense that those administering the program may actually—if wrongheadedly—be acting with integrity and doing what they are convinced is best, complicating the traditionally easy distinction between good and bad guys.

The action really begins when the three abducted girls run away from the facility and begin an impressive epic journey home following the rabbit-proof fence, used in the film to suggest complex cultural divides. The story has the appeal of the best survival literature (Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, George’s My Side of the Mountain, Paulsen’s Hatchet, etc.), including its resourceful, admirable, beautiful children. And these qualities are both individual and cultural. We admire each child, and come to apply those positives generally to their community and its members—an effective trick, here used worthily.

Noyce’s film uses tension and suspense, but the enjoyable effects that accrue from these are subordinated to something bigger; the style and treatment come from the subject and setting, and are not simply there to fulfill expectations or ape conventions. For example, the children’s journey takes place at an almost stately pace, appropriate to the expanse of the impressive desert and the gravity and grandeur of both setting and action. That kind of care may not be familiar or comfortable to impatient, amphetamine-fed viewers (John Sayles’ Secret of Roan Inish is another terrific example of a slow, but eminently rewarding story), but kinetic montage or flashy camera work is not appropriate, or even possible in this expanse. Images are slightly overexposed and colours are washed out, with bright blues and black skin providing the only vivid tones. The acting and interacting are also appropriately subtle, with perfectly terse dialogue, laconic speech, and general understatement. The children are silent, not because of any native clichés, but because they are careful: in their world, betrayal, or succour, can come unexpectedly from any quarter. In the characters’ relationships with adults and other children is another ideal modeled for young viewers, creating proper skepticism as well as a hope, even an expectation of generosity. Again, what might have been plain melodrama deepens through tender cinematic care and attention.

Regarding treatment of the aboriginal peoples, there are poles, but there is also a good range of opinion and sentiment—among aborigines and colonial Australians alike. Rabbit-Proof Fence is an important representation of not only the good and bad, but all of the complex in-betweens on the moral spectrum, and this modesty and respect for the audience makes the film all the more affecting. There are no messy displays, only quiet and containment: feeling emerges naturally in the spectator, resulting from a consideration of issues and implications, and not because of easy cinematic manipulation. The epilogue quietly, shatteringly shows us the real Molly, having escaped twice and lost a child to the government, which ending tells the child viewer, and her parent, that the struggles continue, and that complicity or opposition is our choice.