Brokedown Palace (1999)
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan
Cast: Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale, Bill Pullman, Jacquelyn Kim, Daniel Lapaine, Lou Diamond Phillips, Aimee Graham.
1999 101 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, drug use, and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 14, 1999.
Jonathan Kaplan's "Brokedown Palace" feels throughout like an outline for a movie--one that has been scrupulously planned out, to be sure--rather than one that has an actual screenplay. Far too reminiscent of 1998's "Return to Paradise" to feel the least bit fresh, the film is often uninvolving and needlessly simplistic, with the characters' motivations severely muddled. As opposed to "Return to Paradise," which was a thought-provoking, complex drama, "Brokedown Palace" never really allows you to satisfactorily connect with the two central characters, and their harsh surroundings are portrayed in such a bare-bones light, that when the somewhat unpredictable ending arrives, you come out feeling a tad more indifferent to the whole ordeal than the filmmakers probably wanted you to.
Recent high school graduates and lifelong best friends Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) are planning to take a trip to Hawaii together, but while at a party, they catch word on the more-appealing Third World country of Thailand, which is so cheap that the hotel rooms cost only six dollars a night. "Besides," says the more rebellious Alice, in narration, "Thai means freedom, which was the exact thing we were looking for." At first enjoying themselves in Bangkok, they soon have a chance encounter with the engaging, handsome Australian, Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine), after almost getting caught sneaking into a ritzy hotel and hanging out at the swimming pool, putting their drinks on other peoples' tabs. Inviting both Alice and Darlene to fly to Hong Kong and meet him a day after he leaves for there on business, they agree to, but while at the airport awaiting to board the plane, are abruptly accosted by the police, who find bags of narcotics in Alice's bag. Thrown into a dehumanizing, roach-infested prison, both girls firmly claim that they have no idea how the drugs got into her backpack, and after receiving a bogus sentence of 33 years each, they enlist the aid of supposed-to-be-fabulous lawyer "Yankee" Hank Green (Bill Pullman), an American himself who knows all about the strict Thai laws, to help get them a second hearing.
"Brokedown Palace" would have what it takes to be highly-charged, moving motion picture if not for two setbacks: the release of the superior "Return to Paradise" last year, and the lackluster screenplay by David Arata. Particularly in the first half-hour, the dialogue between the two best friends, which is a vital relationship that is not developed nearly enough, seems to have been cut to a minimum, with their few-and-far-between lines improvised--none to well--on the spot. Whether this is the case or not, the script could have benefitted from an extensive rewrite in order to strengthen the characters and depict the prison experience in a more raw, gritty light. As is, the film is akin to a tablet of cliffs notes, rather than getting us involved in the full experience. The brutality of the Thai prisons does not give us a large enough taste of its harshness, nor are Alice and Darlene instructed to react in a fully believable manner, considering that they are facing almost their whole lives in prison for something they were not even involved in.
The sympathy that we do develop for Alice and Darlene mostly owes itself to the young, talented actress' performances. Claire Danes, in my mind, has been someone to look out for ever since her star-making turn on the best television series of the decade, "My So-Called Life," but with her involvement in this film and last spring's "The Mod Squad," she needs to be more choicy on the projects she makes. Equalling Danes in every way is the British Kate Beckinsale who, with 1998's sparkler, "The Last Days of Disco" and here, is able to pull off a near-perfect American accent, and seems to fully embody every one of her characters, even when they are as underwritten as this picture.
Holding no such close scrutiny is the subplot involving Hank Green and his transformation from a determined lawyer in it for the money, into a more compassionate soul. Hank's cause for inner change is never really vindicated, and his relationship with his wife, Yon (Jacquelyn Kim), couldn't have possibly been any more thinly-written. Bill Pullman makes no impression in this other major role in the film, as he simply goes through the well-worn paces without any distinguishable character traits.
If too flawed to be recommended, "Brokedown Palace" still is not without its merits. Aside from the performances by Danes and Beckinsale, the one powerful sequence in the film arrives midway through, when Darlene's father arrives at the prison, along with all of the other visitors, and we watch as the prisoners and their free family and friends must yell back and forth amidst a wire fence and a long space in between them. The scene jumps out at the viewer because it is the one moment that feels completely authentic, and is emotionally devastating just from the thought that that space in between the imprisoned and the visitors is their path to freedom, if only they could reach it.
Attempting to have its cake and eat it too, director Kaplan has devised an infuriating ending that is both downbeat and upbeat at the same time, which, no doubt, left a sour taste in my mouth. Being very vague about the particulars of the conclusion, the last image we are shown is of someone smiling, which, sorry to say, is an outrageous strain for a falsely happy ending and doesn't even make much sense when you stop to think about it. What one of the characters does in this final act is a courageous act, but it also doesn't sit well with what we already know about the character, and the fact that this person smiles is ludicrous. "Brokedown Palace" yearns to be a meaningful morality tale about two teenagers who don't realize what they've got until it's gone, but what it really is is a glossy Hollywoodization of a serious subject that is as far from the bright lights of Hollywood as could possibly be.
©1999 by Dustin Putman