As if more proof were needed that there are almost no good roles for women in Hollywood, we have the very talented Claire Danes who seemed on a fast track, after My So-Called Life, to becoming a star reduced to being just about the only thing worth watching in two of the year's biggest duds: first Mod Squad, now Brokedown Palace. About two years ago, Kathryn Bigelow was courting Danes to play Joan of Arc, a project she'd been trying to get off the ground for about 10 years. Someone in Danes's camp decided that it was a bad idea for her to follow Romeo and Juliet with another costume picture (or at least that's what was reported in the trades). Why they thought the ankle-length saffron-colored sack that she wears throughout almost all of Brokedown Palace would be less of a costume than Joan's suit of armor is anyone's guess. But the result was that Bigelow's deal fell apart, Leelee Sobieski (Danes's closest competitor in the milky-skinned, intelligent-ingenue category) won a bunch of prizes for her portrayal of Joan in a European TV version, and poor Danes is in the absurd position of trying to make a movie about a Thai prison into a feel-good experience for the American youth market.
In Brokedown Palace, Danes plays Alice, an impulsive, adventurous teenager who, with her best friend, Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), celebrates high school graduation with a trip to Thailand. (Their parents think they've gone to Hawaii.) They meet Nick (Daniel Lapaine), a dashing Australian who surprises both girls by putting the make on the shy Darlene, turning Alice into a third wheel. It's the first time anyone has come between the two, but Nick turns out to be more trouble than either of them could have imagined. A well-connected heroin dealer, he makes Alice and Darlene unwitting decoys, and they wind up with 33-year jail sentences. Their only hope is a Bangkok-based American lawyer, "Yankee Hank" (Bill Pullman), who's known to have a soft heart and occasional success with the corrupt Thai justice system.
Part cautionary tale, part moral-uplift saga, Brokedown Palace is as dull as it's absurd.
Given the target audience, any semblance of realism in the depiction of daily life in a Thai prison must have been ruled off-limits. Yes, Alice is beaten when she takes an apple without permission, and Darlene freaks at the sight of a bug-covered latrine and later is sent to the infirmary because a roach has crawled into her inner ear. However, most of the time the girls hang out in the prison courtyard looking slightly haggard and dirty, but never less than glamorous, as they devise various schemes to regain their freedom. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography is gorgeously golden; the omnipresent pop music soundtrack is unfailingly upbeat (even P.J. Harvey seems too bright for the circumstances).
On the other hand, we have to be grateful that director Jonathan Kaplan has refrained from the images of female degradation that are a sadist's delight. But he's in as hobbled a position as his two lead actors. Beckinsale, admirably, makes Darlene not only shy but mealymouthed and even untrustworthy. Danes, who always seems true to the moment no matter how ridiculous the film is, pulls off a kind of Joan of Arc transformation at the climax. Still, it would be best if she fired whoever got her involved with this two-bit travelogue.