Brokedown Palace (1999)

Brokedown Palace (1999)
  • Time: 100 min
  • Genre: Drama | Mystery | Thriller
  • Director: Jonathan Kaplan
  • Cast: Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale, Bill Pullman


Alice and Darlene, best friends, decide to take a trip to Thailand to celebrate high-school graduation. While there, they are befriended by charming Australian rogue Nick Parks. Nick convinces them to take a weekend side trip to Hong Kong, but at the airport, they are busted for smuggling drugs. They are convicted in a show trial and sentenced to 33 years; in desperation, they contact Yankee Hank, an American lawyer based in Thailand who has been reported to be helpful if you’ve got the cash.

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  • There will come a day when there will be no tears shed onscreen by Claire Danes. I hope I live to see that day but, until then, I suppose I will have to contend myself with her waterworks. They’re in abundant display in Danes’s new film Brokedown Palace.

    Supposedly a gritty drama, the film never really takes off the ground and director Jonathan Kaplan, usually an adept director of women (he directed Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance in The Accused), miraculously manages to neutralize the talents of Danes and Kate Beckinsale, who’s proven herself in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco and on A&E’s production of Jane Austen’s Emma. Both are saddled with characters whose dimensions equal that of paper dolls; when they attempt to rise above this deficiency, they are pushed back down by a careless and carelessly melodramatic screenplay by David Arata.

    Danes and Beckinsale portray high schoolers Alice and Darlene, lifelong friends who decide to have one last adventure before Darlene goes away to college in the fall. Telling their parents that they are off to Hawaii, they instead travel to Thailand. Alice notes that the word Thailand means freedom and where better to go to find what they are truly looking for. Their adventure on a shoestring begins ordinarily enough — staying at a cheap and cheap-looking hotel frequented by cockroaches, complaining about the heat and taking in the sights.

    Then one day the girls encounter a charming Aussie named Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine), who helps cover for them when they pretend to be guests at a fancy hotel. Alice, known as the wild one of the two, takes to him instantly. The attraction seems mutual though he romances the conservative Darlene as well. When the girls agree to a weekend in Hong Kong with him, that’s when the trouble begins. They’re arrested at the airport after several bags of cocaine are found in Alice’s backpack. The girls proclaim their innocence but the government is harsh and merciless. Thrown in a women’s prison, the two Americans try to bear the filthy conditions and keep their hopes alive. Yankee Hank Green (Bill Pullman) agrees to take on their case though he’s motivated more for the money rather than the cause. As days pass into weeks then months, the girls struggle not to turn on one another but Hank’s investigative discoveries threaten to ruin their lifelong friendship.

    The film tends to deal with situations as either black or white, and therein lies the problem. One can only be horrified at what the girls go through for a time and, quite frankly, there was nothing onscreen that made me sympathize with their plight. It doesn’t help that Danes and Beckinsale don’t connect with each other. Alice’s preamble about how they’ve known each other all their lives is not enough to convince viewers that Alice and Darlene would have so strong a bond. Danes and Beckinsale may share the screen but there’s no shared emotional space — they act at each other , not with each other. As a result, the act of ultimate friendship that one of the girls commits in the end rings hollow.

    Brokedown Palace also suffers in comparison to last year’s egregiously underrated Return to Paradise, which was everything this film is not — there was a rawness and intensity in Return to Paradise that Brokedown Palace can’t equal. The former film also had a moral ambiguity that made the situation depicted all the more wrenching. No such melodramatic splendor here. Details that proved promising are squandered or left to be tenuous.

    For example, when a rejected Alice initially refuses to go to Hong Kong with Darlene and Nick, Darlene points out how she has had to do things she didn’t want to do because Alice asked her to. Then the scene where Darlene’s father meets with Alice in the prison. She thinks he’ll help them both; instead, he berates her for being a bad influence on his daughter — even when the girls were kids, he knew how she would always try to place the blame on Darlene. That’s the material to spin the drama out of. Instead, there are shots like the one of Danes, sitting and smoking, her thoughtful stance accompanied by one of the many songs on the soundtrack. And I was horrified by the momentary feeling that I had somehow wandered back to watching Danes in the pathetically inept The Mod Squad.

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