A historical drama that moves with relentless pacing, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a tremendous accomplishment — a film that educates about a little-known cultural injustice while simultaneously pinning us to our seats with incredibly tense suspense.

It’s a long-overdue return to form for director Phillip Noyce, who burst onto the American scene in 1989 with Dead Calm before toiling for a decade in mostly unremarkable Hollywood action films. Though more grounded in enlightenment and emotion, Rabbit-Proof Fence is no less thrilling than Dead Calm, and is Noyce’s finest work since that film.

In 1931 Western Australia, the nation has enacted several “protection” laws giving the predominantly white government jurisdiction over the lives of every Aborigine in the country. One law was the policy regarding half-castes — children born of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers.

Too hubristic to leave these children in their villages but too afraid to fully integrate them into society, the government instead mandated these children be sent to remote outposts for training as domestic servants.

The film tells the true story of Molly, Daisy and Gracie, three such children removed from their life and sent 1,200 miles away to the Moore River Native Settlement. Knowing full well the beating punishment that awaits an escape attempt, the trio runs anyway, led by the courageous Molly on a perilous journey by foot back to their village.

The film’s chilling themes of racism are personified by A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the man named to oversee laws for the Aborigines, who refer to him as “Mr. Devil” behind his back. In the film’s most unsettling scene, Neville uses a slide to show how he expects Aboriginal blood to “naturally” weed its way out of those who are half-castes.

In this short but memorable segment, Branagh showcases the malevolent delight Neville takes at this prospect. The actor’s glassy-eyed glare and stern face are enough to make us hate him. Noyce missteps, though, by skewing the camera angle of nearly every shot Neville is in. That camera trick only calls attention to itself and is a cheap, thematic device that lessens the impact.

Otherwise, everything about the movie delivers with unbridled intensity. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle expertly lenses vistas both beautiful and brutal. Scenes of the girls running through a rainstorm snap us to attention. And while staring in awe at the beauty of the open desert, we wince as we watch the girls’ haggard gait across it.

Peter Gabriel, who has for years provided exceptional scores for films, delivers his best work yet — an alternately hopeful and somber score that throbs with percussion and chants. And the young actresses (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan) ably play characters that are smart and never less than persuasive about their convictions.

Noyce is deft at finding suspense not through phony plot developments, but within his character’s motivations and situations. The fence of the title is what the girls use to determine their direction. At the same time it’s an easy landmark to follow, it’s also a dangerous route, easily scouted by Neville and his soldiers.

Best, though, is the story’s use of an Aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) whose task it is to find the girls. We know that he’s the best tracker there is, but from earlier scenes, we also know that he has a perfectly good emotional reason to let the girls escape.

The tension of that storyline is more suggestion than resolution, but it’s tempered by the fact Noyce has not chosen to go Hollywood with this story. Never is that more obvious than in a modern-day coda that, in a film filled with heartbreaking moments, is an emotionally shattering punch to the gut.

In the hands of the studios Noyce has worked for in the past, the tears at the end of Rabbit-Proof Fence would be happy ones, shed to the swells of uplifting strings. Working on his own, Noyce makes us cry not at the way human determination triumphs, but how its mere existence can keep us going through seemingly insurmountable odds.