Brokedown Palace

Review by Hans Sherrer

Justice Denied Magazine Vol. 1, Issue 10


Starring Claire Danes as Alice, Kate Beckinsale as Darlene, Bill Pullman as Hank, and Jacqui Kim as Yon.


Directed by Jonathan Kaplan.


Produced by Adam Fields.


Distributed by 20th Century Fox. Rated PG-13.


Released to theaters in August 1999


Official Brokedown Palace web site:

Brokedown Palace starts out simply enough. Alice and Darlene are lifelong friends who just graduated from their small town high school in Ohio. They haven't been separated since they were babies, so they want to do something special together before Darlene leaves for college in the fall. After a classmate tells them about a friend who spent only $500 during an entire summer in Bangkok, they decide to go on an eleven day budget adventure to Thailand with money they've saved working as motel maids.

After arriving in Bangkok, Alice and Darlene have fun doing all sorts of tourist things and acting silly as two teenage girls on vacation would be expected to act. While lounging by a hotel pool one afternoon they meet Nick Parks. He is a handsome, charming young Australian man who promises to show them a good time. Instead of having fun with Nick, however, the girls are arrested as suspected heroin smugglers soon after meeting him. Big surprise -- after they're arrested Nick is nowhere to be found. Ten thousand miles from home, the girls find themselves trapped within the bowels of the Thai legal system. Their vacation is over, but their adventure has only begun.

Having grown up in the cloistered world of middle class America, the teenagers are unprepared to deal with being thrown into this strange and confusing world where no one can be trusted. Their new world is inhabited by corrupt policemen, overzealous prosecutors, inhumane jailers, uncaring judges, scheming inmates, dishonest public officials, and incompetent public defenders. Being jailed in a foreign country adds to their difficulties as they struggle with an unfamiliar language and customs, and the relative unimportance of their innocence as a defense against being accused narcotics smugglers.

A number of things are going on above and below the surface in Brokedown Palace. Five of the major themes intertwined into its plot are:

Alice and Darlene are framed as heroin smugglers and falsely prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to 33 years in prison by the corrupt and self-serving Thai legal system.

The personal strain on Alice and Darlene and on their friendship and loyalty towards each other as they try to cope with their difficult and often bewildering situation.

The efforts of Hank, an expatriate American lawyer living in Thailand, and his law partner wife Yon, to free Alice and Darlene from prison.

The difficulties Alice and Darlene experience trying to maintain meaningful ties with their families and friends while imprisoned in the crowded, dirty and broken down remnant of what was once a royal palace.

The unwillingness of U.S. officials to help Alice and Darlene "on the record" because of the complicity between the governments of the United States and Thailand in the heroin trade.

Brokedown Palace was filmed in The Philippines, so it has the gritty look and feel of being real. The movie's authenticity is also due to the many interviews film producer Adam Fields conducted over a period of years with American women imprisoned in foreign countries, including Thailand, on trumped-up drug charges. Mr. Fields heard a variation of the same tragic story over and over, so he synthesized the women's stories into the sad tale of misfortune that befell Alice and Darlene for trusting the manipulative hustler Nick Parks.

Although the movie is set in Thailand, the nightmare of a predicament thrust onto Alice and Darlene is allegorical for what innocent people throughout the world experience when caught in the quagmire of a country's criminal justice system. As so often happens in real life, Alice and Darlene suffer horribly and are falsely convicted because they relied on an unprepared public defender who didn't conduct an investigation before their trial. Mimicking actual cases, the girls' lack of political connections meant that their only hope to avoid spending their lives in prison was to contact the lawyer Hank Greene in a desperate effort to try to get a new trial.

The almost total focus of Brokedown Palace on its two main female characters is why the movie's pre-release title was Two Girls. The emotional roller-coaster ride their friendship undergoes as they face a continual series of challenges realistically reflects what would be expected of a close friendship between any two people under such trying conditions.

I absolutely loved Brokedown Palace. It has heart, and the caring of the people involved in making it shows in the compelling movie they created. Kate Beckinsale carries her weight as Darlene, but Claire Danes makes the movie "happen." She comes into her own as an actress of unique talents by giving an Oscar caliber performance. In her hands, Alice is no shrinking violet and her personality is so complex that its many layers aren't even begun to be peeled away by the end of the movie. Bill Pullman credibly portrays Hank Greene's inner rage while he tries to make the Thai legal system work enough to free the two innocent young women against overwhelming odds. Also deserving of special recognition are David Arata's thoughtful screenplay and Newton Thomas Sigel's stunning cinematography.

Going against the grain of many Hollywood movies, Brokedown Palace reflects the uncertainty of life by not having a pat ending with all its loose strings neatly tied together. Even though Brokedown Palace is an intense and panoramic movie intended to be seen on a big screen, it will be well worth seeing on video.