It would be a lot easier to take "Brokedown Palace" seriously as an Americans-imprisoned-abroad drama if the soundtrack wasn't peppered with chart-bound, pensive chick-pop. With empowering anthems from the likes of P.J. Harvey regularly laid down to illustrate its perceived depth of emotion, this movie makes being framed for drug smuggling and locked up in a dingy Thai prison play like little more than a vaguely deep, teen movie metaphor.
Two apple-cheeked 18-year-olds, innocent in the ways of the Third World, their spontaneous Asian adventure (they told their parents they were going to Hawaii) begins with carefree cultural touristing at farmers markets and $6-a-night hotels. But it becomes a grim nightmare when a handsome young Australian (Daniel Lapaine) charms them both senseless, then hides heroin in their luggage after inviting them to visit him for a weekend in Hong Kong.
Searched at the airport, the girls are arrested and find themselves ensnared in a system where guilt is presumed and justice is very hard to come by.
An earnest -- if failed -- effort with strong key performances, "Brokedown Palace" beats on the drum of self-discovery while it weaves a tale of desperation, perceived betrayal, unjust imprisonment and legal frustration.
The girls enlist the help of "Yankee" Hank, a self-interested, American expatriate lawyer (Bill Pullman), who takes their case only after securing a fat sum wired from Darlene's father. Of course, Hank grows a heart during his pursuit of their freedom, stoked by the exasperation he feels hitting a bureaucratic brick wall despite pretty clear evidence of the girls innocence -- or at least of their naivete.
But director Jonathan Kaplan -- who never shied away from harsh reality when he made his best film, "The Accused" -- soft-peddles everything here, from the prison conditions to the mental health of our heroines. Alice and Darlene take turns unraveling ever-so-slightly and mistrusting each other for a moment here and a moment there, but the weight of their 33-year sentences never seems to settle on them as the movie moves in the direction of a noble sacrifice for friendship and a forced, absurdly upbeat ending.
It can't have been easy for Kaplan, trying to make a realistic movie about a tested feminine camaraderie set against a Third World prison, especially when he had to skew it toward the blissfully suburban and girlie Claire Danes demographic.
Given such a restriction he did an admirable job, even managing to stir a little emotion from such dime-store allusions as a fellow Western prisoner pounding her heart while giving Alice and Darlene a chins-up sermon about how "you find your freedom in here."
Danes and Beckinsale ("Cold Comfort Farm," "The Last Days of Disco") are very talented actresses who, like Kaplan, perform well within the restrictions this film puts on them, frolicking playfully and appealingly in the travelogue portion of the movie (and looking fresh and sweetly sexy, I must say), and tempering their despondency with precision once the unpleasantness kicks in.
But it's just that acquiescent tempering that keeps this movie from measuring up to something like last year's "Return to Paradise," a very similar but much more authentic and distressing exploration of youthful Americans on trial for drug crimes in Singapore.
To be frank, that movie had more dramatic leeway because it featured a slightly older -- and more importantly, male -- protagonists (Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix) facing horrible prison terms.
Call me a sexist for pointing this out, if you like, but as harsh as it is -- the thought of someone doing hard time in a dank, roach-infested prison -- it's a lot easier to swallow when if prisoner is a scruffy young man instead of a soft-skinned sweetheart like Danes.
Ultimately, "Brokedown Palace" must kowtow to this fact or become box office poison (I certainly wouldn't want to see it end with one of the girls dying in jail), and by doing so, its credibility is unavoidably shot.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 13th August 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $13M
Distributed by: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Production compaines: 20th Century Fox
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 31%
Fresh: 11 Rotten: 24
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Also starring: Daniel Lapaine
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