Dir: Phillip Noyce. Australia. 2002. 92 mins.

It's generally accepted that films about aboriginal Australians are local box office poison, which unfairly adds a layer of difficulty to the marketing of Phillip Noyce's excellent homecoming production. International audiences will have fewer problems with his elemental tale, which cuts raw into the virtual-apartheid of 1930s outback society. With its brilliantly managed performances and astonishing widescreen panoramas, Rabbit-Proof Fence vividly dramatises an aspect of colonial ignorance that continues to reverberate throughout the world.

Noyce's early Australian work included his 1979 masterpiece Newsfront, but a string of big-budget, high-earning 1990's thrillers (Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger, The Bone Collector) seemed to have relocated him permanently in Hollywood. This is a welcome return to a more deeply felt commitment to both theme and landscape wrapped in an exciting, true story of maternal loss and youthful tenacity. The film opens on 90 screens in Australia on 21 Feb.

Molly, 14, her sister Daisy, eight, and their cousin Gracie, 10, live with their aboriginal mothers in Jigalong, a remote outpost in the vast emptiness of Western Australia, the date is 1931. Their white fathers, now long gone, helped to build one of the two wire fences that cross the vast land from south to north in a desperate attempt to keep out hordes of hungry, predator-free rabbits, introduced from Europe, that now eat their way relentlessly from the east. Officially 'half caste', the girls attract the beady bureaucratic attentions of Mr AO Neville (Branagh), designated the Chief Protector of Aborigines. He orders their snatched removal and deportation 1,500 miles south to a Catholic-run settlement where they can be bullied into 'useful citizenship' - better known as domestic servitude.

Distressed but unyielding, Molly (Sampi) leads the two younger girls on a seemingly hopeless breakout, starting an epic homeward trek along a rabbit-proof fence through a series of evermore desolate regions, followed by white policemen and Moodoo (Gulpilil), a cold-eyed blacktracker with his own agenda. Their many encounters and near misses crank up the tension which builds to an emotion-charged conclusion, linking an aspect of Australia's shameful past with its uneasy present. Director Noyce confronts local audiences with a painful depiction of the Stolen Generations, a hotly-debated political concept still able to fill newspapers and swing elections in the 21st century.

The tale is simple and direct, as is Christine Olsen's award-winning script from the biographical account of Doris Pilkington Garimara, daughter of the real Molly. But its pared-down dialogue and succinct exposition is perfect for Noyce's purposes and his success at getting such startlingly naturalistic performances from his inexperienced cast, young and old, is a testimony to his determination and sensitivity. The scene where the frightened girls are torn from the arms of their grieving mothers is devastating.

Kenneth Branagh gives righteous confusion to the crackpot Mr Neville (called "Mr Devil" by the aboriginals) as he attempts to explain the important differences between "half-castes", "quadroons" and "octoroons" or explores the skins of black youngsters for redeeming traces of whiteness. David Gulpilil's tracker has a rock-like dignity and implacable purpose: he has little dialogue but speaks volumes with a flicker of an eye. Christopher Doyle's lavish camerawork and Peter Gabriel's ethnic-based music also make important contributions.

The widescreen vastness of the children's flight contrasts starkly with the cramped office from which Neville, his secretary and an often visiting police inspector are supposedly keeping an eye on every aboriginal soul under their 'care and protection'. There's a disappointing TV-style soapiness about these scenes, despite the twitchy humanity of Branagh's villainy.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is hardly an alluring tourist advertisement for outback travel, nor does it present a flattering view of White Australia to the world. But it's unquestionably a piece of vigorous film-making with a vital, moving subject and fine acting in an exotic, unfamiliar landscape: and that's something all Australians can be proud of.

Prod cos: Rumbalara Films, Olsen Levy Productions
Aust/NZ dist: Ocean Pictures, Becker Entertainment
Int sales: HanWay Films
Prods: John Winter, Philip Noyce, Christine Olsen
Scr: Christine Olsen, based on the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara
Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle
Prod des: Roger Ford
Ed: John Scott, Veronika Jenet
Music: Peter Gabriel
Main cast: Everlyn Sampi, David Gulpilil, Kenneth Branagh, Ningali Lawford, Jason Clarke, Deborah Mailman