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By Diana Sanderson
Dar and Alice have been best friends since childhood. Upon graduation from high school, the two decide to have a real adventure of a lifetime: instead of going to Hawai'i as planned, they will fly on to Bankok, Thailand, which friends have told them is wildly exotic and inexpensive. They arrive and check into a cheap, roach infested hotel. But no matter, there are places to see and adventures to be had. We learn that Alice is the wild one; she comes from a broken home and is often to source of mischief and a little trouble. Darlene is more stable, not as adventurous and afraid of displeasing her parents.
The girls, in a midst of a hot and sweaty afternoon, decide to go swimming at an expensive hotel where they order drinks and food. Alice, when asked how they will pay, impulsively gives the waiter a room number. But the waiter finds out they are lying and is about to call security when a handsome Australian man comes up and rescues them. The girls spend the day with him, finding him charming and irresistible. He plays off both of them, finally settling on Darlene. Alice, at first glance seems to be fine with this, but we later learn, she is jealous of Dar. Nick, a software salesman (or is he?) asks the girls to fly to Hong Kong for the weekend. But when the girls get to the airport, the authorities seize their carry on luggage and find heroin in Dar's backpack. The girls are placed in the Thai justice system, where they are found guilty and sentencing to 33 years.
They arrive at the "Brokedown Palace", a correctional institution for women. Our man Bill is Henry "Yankee Hank" Greene, an American lawyer living in Thailand. He takes the girls' case, where he finds that everything doesn't quite add up. At first, the audience is given to believe he is nothing more than a money grubbing hustler. But Hank is taken with these two girls' plight and digs deeper into their case where he is stopped at every turn. Finally, he cuts a deal with the Thai justice minister and arranges for the girls to appear before the King, who will grant them a pardon. At the last minute, the government official renegs on the deal, and the girls are about to be thrown back into prison, when Alice, in a desperate act, appeals to the king and takes the blame, so as her friend can receive a pardon. This affecting and often moving drama is a profound tale about the nature of friendship. We never really learn if Alice is guilty or not, but her act of selflessness somehow begins her on the journey to redeem her from past mistakes. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, scenes of brutality, and a mature subject.
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Articles and Reviews
BROKEDOWN PALACE / *** (PG-13)
August 13, 1999
Alice: Claire Danes
Darlene: Kate Beckinsale
Hank: Bill Pullman
Nick Parks: Daniel Lapaine
U.S. Official: Lou Diamond Phillips
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan. Written by Adam Fields and David Arata. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language, drug related material and some violent content).
"Brokedown Palace" tells the story of two American teenage girls who are sentenced to spend most of their lives in a Thai prison. Their crimes are apparently harmless: being silly and naive. Yet it is a fact that they had drugs in their possession when they passed through Thai customs on their way to Hong Kong, and that is a practice the Thai authorities do not find amusing.
The girls are Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale). They're high school buddies who plan a graduation trip to Hawaii, and then secretly change their destination to the more exotic Thailand without telling their parents. Once there, they find a $6 guest house, and sneak into a luxury hotel to sip expensive drinks at poolside. They get caught trying to charge the bill to the wrong room, but they are saved from trouble by a friendly Australian, Nick (Daniel Lapaine), who takes care of the bill and makes smooth romantic moves, first toward Alice, then toward Darlene.
By now alarm bells are going off among moviegoers who have seen "Return to Paradise" (1998), not to mention "Midnight Express" (1978). A lot of foreign countries sentence drug traffickers to life, or death, and trusting Americans are sitting ducks for smooth-talking smugglers who take advantage of them.
"Return to Paradise" posed a fascinating moral dilemma, since three friends went to Malaysia but two were already safe back in the United States when the third was busted for possession of hashish. The deal: He'll get death, because of the amount in his possession. But if both friends return to share the blame, they'll all get three years. If one returns, he and the prisoner will get six years. If you're selfish but don't want your friend to die, obviously the best deal for you is if the other guy goes back, while you stay safe at home.
"Brokedown Palace" doesn't offer a simple moral equation like that--at least not at first, although the ending sets a challenge for the audience. The two girls are sentenced to 33 years, and in desperation find a local American lawyer named Hank the Yank (Bill Pullman) who agrees to take their case. (As he's on the phone with one of their fathers, he doodles how much money he can ask for: $40,000? $30,000?) He's greedy but honest, and doubtful about a lot of things, including the story the girls tell about the friendly Australian.
The heart of the film is in the performances of Danes and Beckinsale after they're sent to prison. Consider. One moment your entire life is ahead of you: college, marriage, kids, a career, a home, middle age, fulfillment. The next moment all of that has been taken away. Your future has been locked in a foreign prison. One poignant scene shows the girls shouting across an open space to visitors--friends and relatives from home, whose lives continue while theirs are on hold.
The movie, directed by Jonathan Kaplan ("Over the Edge," "The Accused"), plays the material straight, to great effect. There are no sneaky plot tricks or grandstand plays, and the reasoning of a Thai judge, during an appeal hearing, is devastating in its logic. There is, however, an interesting development at the end, which I will not even hint at, which requires the audience to decide whether something can be believed, and what exactly are the motives behind it.
Claire Danes, clear-eyed and straightforward, plays Alice as just a little more complex than her friend. She comes from a poorer background, has a reputation for getting into trouble and doesn't seem trustworthy to Darlene's dad. Pullman, weighing the pros and cons, dealing with a cynical and unhelpful U.S. Embassy official (Lou Diamond Phillips), has seen cases like this before. The girls should have known not to trust strangers, to be suspicious of a free trip to Hong Kong, to never let their luggage out of the sight of both of them. Should have. Now they have a lot of time to think about that.
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