Australia in the 1930s: a law exists stating that 'half-caste' children must be separated from their Aborigine families. But when three young girls are snatched by the government and taken to an institution 1,500 miles away from home, they escape and begin the long walk home.
Phillip Noyce - best known for thrillers 'Dead Calm, Patriot Games' and 'The Bone Collector' - returns to his Australian roots for this captivating tale that could have ended up as a soppy Sunday-afternoon-on-Channel-Five film in the hands of another director.
Noyce, however, while obviously moved by the plight of these Aboriginal children, wisely decides not to wring every moment for maximum weepie effect. Instead he simply illustrates the true story with stunning locations and subtle performances that themselves are enough to break your heart by the end credits.
As the three girls make their way across the unrelenting countryside, using the wire fence that cross-sections Western Australia as a guide, the young actresses - all making movie debuts - relate the anguish, determination and fear of their characters with performances that would make any experienced, adult actor proud.
The real surprise, though, is Branagh. His character, A. O. Neville, the government's Chief Protector of the Aborigines, was the man responsible for taking 'half-caste' Aborginal children away from their parents to train as domestic servants and labourers (he believed that preventing children of mixed marriages from marrying Aborigines would eventually wipe out the Aboriginal race).
Neville could have been depicted as an evil caricature for easy effect, but instead Branagh gives him some humanity so that, while we hate his point of view and methods, he still comes across as a man (albeit a very misguided one) rather than a pantomime villain.
In the end, though, the achingly sad story really belongs to the girls, and especially to Everlyn Sampi, who plays Molly, the most determined of them all. And when Noyce shows us the real Molly and her sister, now both in their eighties and living on the land they were so desperate to return to, you realise the most inspirational movies don't have to have swirling music and Hollywood stars to bring a real tear to your eye.
Low on schmaltz and with three terrific performances from the girls, this is a moving and fascinating look at a piece of recent history that most Australians would probably prefer to forget.