In Australian movies from Razorback (1984) to Original Schtick (1999), Americans often figure as sinister, manipulative predators – usually con artists of some description. Brokedown Palace strikingly reverses the pattern.
On an illicit holiday in Bangkok, two American teenagers, Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), fall for the slick, worldly patter of an Australian, Nick (Daniel Lapaine). When the girls find themselves hauled off to the women's prison known as 'brokedown palace' because of a stash of heroin found in their luggage, they start questioning the Aussie's smooth talk.
This is an odd, compelling film which takes a few surprising turns. The first is the complete disappearance of Nick; it is not really he but the entire Thai law enforcement system which takes the role of villain. And then other characters suddenly emerge, commanding our attention, particularly 'Yankee Hank' (Bill Pullman), an ambiguous operator sitting astride different cultures.
Everything is ambiguous in this story – especially the actions and motives of the girls themselves. By cleverly omitting some key plot events, screenwriters David Arata and Adam Fields force us to constantly question our assumptions and revise our understandings, as in a good film noir.
Jonathan Kaplan – once among the most revered American directors for such tough, anarchistic, complex films as Over The Edge (1982) – was a wise choice to steer this potentially troublesome material.
Kaplan seems these days to perform expert damage control on a range of unlikely projects (such as Love Field ). Here he tones down the inherent racism of the subject – differentiating it from such jingoistic nightmares as Midnight Express (1978) and Red Corner (1998) – while finding an intriguing emotional core within the characters and their situation.
It is unfortunate that so many contemporary American movies seem determined, when time comes for the drama's third act, to drop any social or political context that has hitherto been built up, and focus on individual acts of resilience, courage or moral worth.
Brokedown Palace gives this convention a bizarre twist, coming to resemble those intense melodramas that Roberto Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman in the 1950s – where, the more intense a woman's suffering and victimisation, the more luminously spiritual and angelic she becomes.
When it comes to Hollywood happy endings, however, Kaplan is a modern-day Douglas Sirk. There is always a doubt, some nagging, unanswered question, lurking behind the smiles and the orchestral crescendos. Brokedown Palace may be, ultimately, a minor work, but it is a carefully crafted and haunting mystery.
© Adrian Martin December 1999