It’s one of those awful, true stories made for the movies: In 1930s Australia, when Aboriginal children of mixed race were forcibly taken from their families, placed in state-run schools, and trained as domestic workers in a warped notion of social reform, three little girls escaped their institutional confines and bolted for home. It was a 1,500-mile journey, and basic survival was only half the battle; the girls also had to outrun the captors hard on their trail. To keep their bearings, the three followed what was then the longest unbroken line of fence in the world, a man-made barrier built — with more hardheaded governmental determination — to keep out the rabbits that were plaguing the Australian countryside.
Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce’s elemental dramatization, based on a book by the daughter of the then-14-year-old girl (now in her 80s) who led the way for her younger sister and cousin, is spare and unyielding like the miseries that woeful policy — which lasted until 1971 — caused. His directorial fire reinvigorated by the release of this plainsong and ”The Quiet American,” Noyce honors the story best by standing back (and getting Kenneth Branagh, as a supercilious official, to stand back, too): Noyce lets the landscape and the untrained young actresses own the screen, particularly the naturally magnetic Everlyn Sampi as the eldest, Molly, undeterred by any barrier to family and freedom.