Where Midnight Express told the harrowing real-life experience of a brutal prison, and Return to Paradise posed a moral and ethical dilemma to its audience, Brokedown Palace explores the importance of having a BFF and how the power of friendship can thwart a corrupt justice system. Such is the lot of 1999’s Brokedown Palace, a cautionary tale of travelling abroad for the MTV generation at a time when no one gave them credit to think for themselves.
Alice Murano (Claire Danes) and Darlene Davis (Kate Beckinsale) are lifelong friends planning their post-graduation holiday. Alice, the reckless and impulsive one, convinces passive and earnest Darlene to swap out their planned Hawaii trip for Thailand. Alice feels that Hawaii is painfully middle class and parochial, but someone at a party drops a Thai beer bottle as her voiceover tells us that Thailand means “freedom” and so her mind is made up. A quick deceit of their parents later, and they’re in Thailand, being obnoxious tourists and partying it up on other peoples’ money, when they meet Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine), a charming Australian Lothario who seduces them with a free trip to Hong Kong. But before you can say “smuggler” they’re found to have a fair quantity of heroin in their backpack and are thrown into jail.
They set about trying to prove their innocence with the help of a self-serving lawyer (Bill Pullman) while facing the harsh realities of life in a Thai prison, all the while straining their friendship as they start to question each other’s complicity in the crime. Brokedown Palace is not an amazing movie, but it has some interesting ideas. The problem is that these ideas are watered down into a teen-marketable movie (which failed – the film didn’t even make back half of its budget) or sugar coated in either high-concept or moral black-and-whites. The characters are caricatures, the situations just dramatic enough, the machinations of the plot carefully oiled to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Claire Danes is a fine actress, and she creates miracles out of the terrible material she has to work with here; Alice is a “bad-girl” character, though not a malicious one. She’s impulsive and a little reckless, and has street smarts without being overbearing with it. Darlene on the other hand is an insipid waste of characterisation, and Beckinsale’s performance does little to rise above it; the film’s ending hinges on a great sacrifice made for Darlene – one wonders why anyone would feel compelled to do so. What the film does very well is showcase the arrogance of two teens holidaying in a place they view as there to serve them; Alice and Darlene exploit Thailand as an exotic pampering ground, complaining about the quality of their $6 per night accommodation, making fun of local customs in a temple and completely buying into tourist-centred “authenticity” – the film captures the very “teen” sensibility about them (again, they’re not being deliberately dickish, they just don’t consider anything outside themselves) and it sets them up nicely to suffer a fall once they’re imprisoned.
The problem here is that it means we’re introduced to two largely inane characters, bordering on unlikeable, and we spend the first act of the film with them, not building up much (if any) sympathy to their inevitable plight. Also, because moral complexity is anathema to the teen movie set, the film sits on the fence about whether or not one of them smuggled the drugs. We simply never find out if one of them was guilty, having fallen for the easy charm of Nick Parks. The way the film toys around with this at various points is interesting, but ultimately highlights what the movie could have been if it had a bit more spine.. Both Alice and Darlene are romanced by Nick, and both have enough of a reaction to him that the audience could buy that one of them would do his “favour” and pack a suspicious parcel in their bags. There are times throughout the movie where it suggests that either one of them could be guilty, and just when you think the movie is going to get interesting, it squanders the plot point into what essentially amounts to a “you stole my boyfriend!” argument between the two and it’s not picked up again.
The other downside of not exploring the ambiguity of their involvement in the crime is that it robs the film of a lot of potential tension. Without knowing if Alice or Darlene (or both) is innocent, it robs the sense of injustice the film wants you to have at their plight. The way it plays out, it seems most logical that they’re both innocent, but without having it confirmed, it brings up the question of whether or not they should actually be imprisoned. Also, and this is most likely the trappings of softening the film for the sake of its intended audience, the prison doesn’t seem all that bad. The film wants it to be a Midnight Express-esque hellhole that would break the spirit and mind, but other than their initial incarceration and some gross food, there’s nothing thematically hellish about what they go through. Yes, the idea of being imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit is frightening, and the very act of being imprisoned at all implies so much lost opportunity, but the problem is that the film has no tension as a result of it. There’s no constant presence of threat or malice that they need to be freed from; it has the side effect of making it seem like the movie tried to be a pulse-pounding thriller about the bureaucratic process of getting released from prison. And what makes this work is that director Jonathan Kaplan actually made a pulse-pounding thriller about bureaucratic process when he made The Accused!
There’s also the slightly uncomfortable issue of Thailand itself. The script is full of small comments from characters about what an awful place it is, and how corrupt everything is – it might be an attempt at “show don’t tell” in terms of how the characters feel, but the overall result is a little awkward in terms of what’s presented to the audience. That’s possibly exacerbated by the fact that the film was shot in the Philippines (Thailand wouldn’t permit filming on location due to the unflattering portrayal in the script) and Claire Danes’ subsequent derogatory comments about her time there were bad enough for her to be declared persona-non-grata. The lack of balance in how Thailand is portrayed actually makes the film teeter close to an exploitation film, only it’s the setting that’s being exploited specifically.
However, the film is entertaining enough. It’s spineless and a bit vapid, but it’s worth seeing for Danes’ performance in amidst the other phoned-in ones (although in fairness, Jacqueline Kim puts in a fine turn as Pullman’s wife, though her role is criminally underused), and the soundtrack (which creates a centrepiece out of Delerium’s Silence) is also pretty great. It doesn’t ask too much of you as a viewer, and if you want something to frighten your teenage girls into being wary of handsome rogues when they travel, perhaps this is an ace up your sleeve. But if you want something with more substance, stick with Midnight Express or Return to Paradise.