The penalties for drug trafficking in Thailand are very, very stiff. If there were any justice in the world, the penalties for saddling fine actors with terrible dialogue would be even stiffer. In Jonathan Kaplan's "Brokedown Palace" (written by David Arata, from a story by Adam Fields), Claire Danes, one of the most talented actors of her generation, utters the line "That's all freedom is -- an illusion." And you always thought it was just another word for nothing left to lose.
In "Brokedown Palace," two lifelong friends who've recently graduated from high school, Alice (Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) decide to take a pleasure trip to Thailand. Alice is the daring one, the one with the big ideas, self-assured and capable of taking care of herself. Darlene is the more timid one, the one who needs to be talked into harebrained schemes (like taking a casual pleasure trip to a country with notoriously Draconian laws). When the two of them hook up with, and fall for, an excessively charming Australian guy who claims to be visiting Thailand on some kind of software-related business (yeah, right), they have no idea he's setting them up to be "mules," couriers who ferry drugs into other countries. Imagine their surprise when they're busted at the airport en route to Hong Kong (after having agreed to a weekend trip the Australian has offered to pay for), with two oversized tins of heroin stuffed into one of their tiny backpacks. Although neither knows how the drugs got there, the authorities show no mercy: The girls are slapped with an outlandish 33-year prison sentence and find themselves shipped off to a dismal correctional facility replete with scary matrons and cockroaches the size of half-dollars.
"Brokedown Palace" is something of a cross between "Midnight Express" and those faceless old movies set in women's prisons, although it's not as aggressively terrifying as the former and not as campily funny as the latter. For anybody who wouldn't find an ordinary prison drama weighty enough, "Brokedown Palace" is filled with little lessons, morals about self-sacrifice and truisms: Danes narrates the story in voice over, at one point remarking about the birds Thai vendors sell on the street so that tourists can buy them and set them free; she later learns that the birds are trained to fly right back to the vendors. Oh, the irony! Especially in light of the fact that "Thailand," as Danes has already told us, means "freedom" -- an important theme of "Brokedown Palace." But maybe that's giving too much away.
"Brokedown Palace" starts out promisingly enough: The early scenes, where the girls explore the glittering glory of Thailand, are beautifully shot, and Kaplan manages to capture something of the lazy, sunny camaraderie that two young and very close friends on vacation might share. And for a short while it's almost pleasurable -- almost -- to watch the way Kaplan's shamelessness unfolds. Darlene is from a fairly comfortable family: Her father is the kind of guy who really knows "how to grease the wheels," and when he shows up in Thailand to pull some strings and obtain his daughter's freedom (he can't), he also makes it a point to blame the lower-rent Alice for his daughter's predicament. In contrast, Alice's dad (John Doe, woefully under used) is a truck driver who lives in an exceedingly modest house. (Kaplan shows it to us in a Currier and Ives snowfall.) When Alice phones him and begs him to send money to the crackerjack wheeler-dealer lawyer (Bill Pullman) who's agreed to help the girls, he stalls, ostensibly unable to tell her he doesn't have it. Then he reveals the reason he hasn't come to Thailand to visit her in prison: "The doctor says my diabetes ..."
Before long it's clear that if there's a dramatic string to be pulled, "Brokedown Palace" is going to yank it. Its arsenal of stock villains is comical: Lou Diamond Phillips, as an American embassy honcho who knows the girls are innocent but claims that it's futile to try to help them, is earmarked as a lazy fat-cat by the way he chomps his cigar and tosses back a stiff drink with a snap of the wrist. In the prison, the guards -- very bad girls indeed -- are all hefty-sized ladies with their hair wound into tight buns, their serpentine smiles outlined in blood-red lipstick. There's also an inexplicably vicious Thai prisoner, a girl who for no good reason other than spite gets Alice and Darlene in trouble on their first day and who thereafter is always caught by the camera with a bemused, treacherous smile lingering on her otherwise vacant face. Evil lurks.
What's most painful about "Brokedown Palace" is seeing good actors valiantly swimming against the riptide of crappy dialogue. Pullman does his best with the cardboard role of the greedy expat American lawyer who, deep down, is really a dedicated do-gooder. As Yon, his Thai wife and business partner, Jacqueline Kim cuts through the movie's silliness with sheer resolve. Her no-nonsense line readings take no prisoners. Beckinsale, who showed a degree of charm and craftiness in "Cold Comfort Farm," is undermined by the fact that her character is so poorly written. She's stuck playing the dumb innocent and gets most of the real stinker lines. (After she signs an incriminating document written in Thai, she assures Alice that she can clear up the mess by telling the authorities that she just didn't know what she was signing.)
And yet in the middle of all this mess, Danes somehow manages to turn in a real performance. When she and Darlene first come to Thailand, the openness and delight on her face don't read as simple naiveti; the way she stands up and stretches as she and her pals ride along in a small boat, reaching up to the sun, she really is drinking in what she believes to be freedom. And at the movie's climax -- an effusive and poorly written scene that's emblematic of the movie's worst excesses -- she spills out a few lines, in Thai no less, that stop you cold. The absurdity of the scene is momentarily erased. It's unthinkable to focus on anything but the agony playing itself out in her impossibly large and expressive eyes. It's depressing to see Danes so badly served by her material. But when an actor salvages a clumsy scene the way she does, you can only see it as a sign of hope. If a movie as excessive and overwrought as "Brokedown Palace" can't contain her, she'll never be a captive bird.