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Bust of Friends

[whitespace] 'Brokedown Palace'

Two Americans get a taste of Third World injustice in 'Brokedown Palace'

By Michelle Goldberg

Another Midnight Express for the '90s, Brokedown Palace treads much the same ground as last year's Return to Paradise, but in a much more riveting way. Like that movie, Brokedown Palace is the story of American kids who travel to Southeast Asia looking for freedom and find exactly the opposite--drug arrests and jail sentences handed down by kangaroo courts. Unlike Return to Paradise, Brokedown Palace thrusts the audience right into the frustration and despair faced by two American teenage girls locked in a hideous prison for a crime that even the authorities know they didn't commit. We're trapped with them, and their escape attempt and various courtroom scenes pulse with a cold-sweat suspense that's both excruciating and deeply compelling.

Claire Danes is superb as Alice Moreno, a recent high school graduate and sassy bad girl who convinces her gentle, innocent best friend, Darlene Davis (Kate Beckinsale), to forgo a planned trip to Maui in favor of an adventure in Thailand. In Bangkok, they meet a charming Australian who seduces both girls before setting them up in a heroin bust. In prison, the local authorities trick the trusting Darlene into signing a confession written in Thai. Their appointed attorney is indifferent to their case, as is the American consulate. Desperate, Alice contacts an infamous American expatriate lawyer called Yankee Hank (Bill Pullman). Hank tries to pass himself off as a mercenary, but of course--in one of the film's few predictable developments--he soon reveals his heart of gold and pursues the case even after the money runs out.

As a film about Americans trapped in a corrupt, inscrutable system, it will likely rankle PC relativists. In the many prison scenes, we're only led to care about the plight of the English-speakers: Alice and Darlene, of course, as well as an English girl and a Jamaican girl, both in prison for drug smuggling. The rest of the inmates are just part of the scenery.

Nevertheless, it's almost impossible not to feel deeply sympathetic for these naive young Westerners drowning in a foreign system in which the rights they've always taken for granted don't exist. Both actresses bring the girls' intense, fraught friendship alive. Beckinsale especially is a surprise, because she infuses Darlene with a shy, ethereal sensitivity so far removed from the bitchy hauteur of her characters in The Last Days of Disco and Cold Comfort Farm that she's almost unrecognizable. Danes also stretches herself as Alice, displaying a sharply angry, passionate side that she usually keeps submerged. She makes Alice's unexpected transformation, from irresponsible wild child to her friend's protector and savior, entirely believable.

Director Jonathan Kaplan is known for making "issue" movies like The Accused, and having such sympathetic protagonists here helps him drive his point home. The film isn't at all didactic, but it should bring attention to all the young travelers languishing in Third World prisons on drug charges. Yes, it is arrogant for Westerners to go abroad seeking exotic experiences while expecting to enjoy the same liberties they have at home. Nevertheless, it's harrowing to see the appearance of paradisiacal decadence lure travelers into a false sense of security that ultimately destroys them. The horror of wasted life in Brokedown Palace --and in many such stories--transcends guilt or innocence.

Brokedown Palace (PG-13) Directed by Jonathan Kaplan; Written by David Arata; Photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel, and starring Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale, opens Fri.

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From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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