Daunting and brutal, Brokedown Palace is one of the year’s most harrowing experiences. Persuasively written by David Arata and intelligently directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who guided Jodie Foster to an Oscar in The Accused , it’s a gripping cautionary tale of innocents abroad in the same vein as Midnight Express and the more recent Return to Paradise . Somehow the story of gullible Americans locked up in a corrupt foreign country for drug trafficking seems doubly chilling when the victims are girls. There are plenty of them in real life, rotting away in Asian prisons, and this grim, terrifying film serves as a reminder that what they’re going through cannot be softened by homemade fudge and Hallmark cards.
In Return to Paradise , which almost nobody bothered to see, Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix were the two buddies facing the hangman’s knot in Malaysia, and Anne Heche was the tough lawyer trying vainly to save them. This time, Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale land in a cockroach-infested hell in Bangkok the locals call “the brokedown palace,” and Bill Pullman comes to their rescue as a seedy, money-grubbing expatriate American lawyer married to a Thai woman. Both films address problems of political, moral and esthetic responsibility, but this one is even bolder in its depiction of government corruption in Thailand. The country is an international sewer where a United States passport cannot protect you from the horrors awaiting American teenagers looking for inexpensive adventures and cut-rate dope. Everyone, from the lowest bellboy and taxi driver all the way up to the chief of police, is on the take. This movie will set tourism back 100 years.
Ms. Danes, redeeming herself admirably after the dismal Mod Squad , did not endear herself to me on David Letterman’s show recently when she denounced Brokedown Palace and called All About Eve her “favorite Preston Sturges movie.” Don’t they teach them anything up there at Yale? Still, she gives her most sincere performance to date in this film; her natural arrogance seems to work for the role of Alice, the wilder, more flamboyant chick, and a nice contrast to Ms. Beckinsale’s more cautious, demure and well-bred Darlene.
After high-school graduation, they tell their parents they’re going to Hawaii, but their secret destination is really a lawless, unsupervised one last fling before college in exotic Bangkok. After getting caught sneaking into a posh tourist hotel and charging poolside drinks to somebody else’s room, they are rescued by a charming, good-looking Australian businessman (Daniel Lapaine) who dazzles both girls with his seductive charisma and gives them free plane tickets to Hong Kong for
a weekend of fun and games. What they don’t know is that he’s really a drug smuggler who hides a stash of heroin in their luggage. Seized at the airport, they are charged, tried and sentenced to 33 years in the same kind of snake pit as the Turkish hellhole where Brad Davis landed in Midnight Express .
From here, the film explores the bitterness, rage, despair and eventual loyalties of the two friends in their desperate attempts to save themselves with the aid of a scuzzy ambulance chaser called Hank the Yank (another riveting performance by the always excellent Mr. Pullman). While Darlene writes letters to the President of the United States in vain, Alice smokes pot and becomes cynical and despondent. But in the end it is Alice, traditionally the reckless one, who tests the bonds of friendship, shows unprecedented maturity and makes the supreme sacrifice to save Darlene.
This is where eyebrows may rise. The girls are a bit too naïve and self-centered to summon much sympathy (one even signs a confession written in Thai without knowing what it says). As a conniving little tart, Alice, in her newfound nobility and magnanimous generosity, strains credulity. But there is much to think about here, some fine performances, breathtaking camerawork among the wats and palaces of the ancient city, and a morality lesson I doubt will be heeded by the teenagers who would benefit most from seeing this film. Having been to Bangkok several times in the past, I can only assure you it’s not worth the trouble. I don’t think anyone has had a really excellent adventure there since Anna and the King of Siam.
Judith Ivey, Summer Thriller
A new play on Broadway in the middle of August is as rare as a tax refund. A new thriller is unheard of. With valiant, vibrant Judith Ivey as the star, Voices in the Dark has therefore got a number of things going for it. It’s the kind of matinee pleaser that kept women screaming in the good old days, when there was a new heroine-in-jeopardy script every two weeks, usually starring Arlene Francis or Faye Emerson.
Ms. Ivey is a new, 90’s kind of dame in distress-the smart, brittle host of a telephone call-in radio show who dispenses advice to disturbed listeners coping with incest, suicide and menopause. Fearful of turning into another Jerry Springer, she eschews television offers for “primal reality programming” and escapes to a magnificent log cabin in the Adirondacks in the middle of a stormy weekend in November. There she is suddenly imperiled by a real homicidal maniac who may or may not be phoning her from Milwaukee, a retarded neighbor who may or may not be as mentally challenged as he pretends, a bearlike handyman who may or may not be as friendly as he seems and an abusive cop who finds the Jacuzzi full of human intestines. After a barrage of the usual suspects, anonymous callers and violent household appliances with wills of their own, the lady is, quite naturally, reduced to hysterics, and the matinee ladies are too paralyzed to reach for their gumdrop wrappers in the dark.
John Pielmeier, who wrote the captivating Agnes of God , provides one red herring too many, and the resolutions flood the stage so fast in the final five minutes, you can’t absorb them all. But Ms. Ivey is having a terrific summer vacation away from serious work, and when you see all that snow falling on cathedral windows during an electrical power failure, you’ll forget all about the heat and wish you had brought a sweater.