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A melancholy Danes breaks out

By Alicia Potter

AUGUST 16, 1999:  Nobody cries like Claire Danes. She sniffles, she blubbers, she wails; she wrenches her face into the scarlet, tear-streaked grimace of a baby. It's a dangerous talent to have in a film like this, a Midnight Express-like saga of two Ohio girls stuck in a Bangkok prison. Yet even with the waterworks on full blast, Danes never washes the tale into melodrama; instead, her power to bring nuance to emotional extremes is what keeps director Jonathan Kaplan's otherwise wallowing effort afloat.

For all her weeping -- first shown to angsty effect on television's My So-Called Life -- Danes is actually playing against type. Gone is the brow-pinching introspection she's come to embody, not to mention the wan goody-goodiness of her supporting roles in Little Women and How To Make an American Quilt. As Alice Marano, Danes indulges her inner Christina Ricci: she's a red-bikini'd bad girl who convinces her more reserved best friend, Darlene Davis (Kate Beckinsale), that they should nix a graduation trip to boring old Hawaii and, without telling their parents, sneak off to exotic Thailand.

It's there among the congested, sun-scorched streets of Bangkok -- in actuality, the Philippines -- that the girls have the time of their young lives (we know this because they beam at each other often and hug a lot). They shop, they drink, they even dance the night away with a hot Australian (Muriel's Wedding's Daniel Lapaine), who quickly beds Darlene. It's a turn of events that catches the overtly flirty Alice off guard, triggering swells of jealousy and anger. Still, Alice caves in when Darlene begs her to join her and their handsome new acquaintance on a trip to Hong Kong.

Hell is more like it. Just as one should never say "I'll be right back" in a horror film, one should never have too much fun in a movie set in a Third World country -- witness last year's dank foray into the Malaysian justice system, Return to Paradise, or the upcoming Leonardo Di Caprio starrer The Beach, or the Turk-baiting archetype of the lot, Midnight Express. Sure enough, at the airport, Thai police descend, their rifles aimed at the girls, as custom agents rip open Alice's backpack to reveal an airline pillow-sized bag of heroin. It's a discovery that wins the teens -- who insist they've been framed by the Aussie -- 33 years in a brutal, cockroach-infested prison.

From here, the film unwinds into a predictably nightmarish, often tedious exposé of corruption and draconian rule. With their hair hacked and their faces smudged, Alice and Darlene grow increasingly suspicious of each other, and consequently the drama spikes. Making big girls cry is director Kaplan's strong point. He's directed several notable women in career-making turns: Bonnie Bedelia in 1983's Heart like a Wheel, Jodie Foster in 1988's The Accused (for which she won an Oscar), and Michelle Pfeiffer in 1992's Love Field (an Oscar-nominated role). Here, however, Beckinsale's not churning out any statuette-worthy emotion, as she, like Danes, plays against part, squelching the headstrong charm that made her such a standout in Cold Comfort Farm and The Last Days of Disco. Next to Danes's expert lip-quivering and indignant outbursts, the British actress even seems a bit stagy.

Yet a disappointing Beckinsale is hardly the film's downfall. With the exception of Bill Pullman as a growling expatriate lawyer trying to help the girls and Jacqueline Kim as his wife, the supporting cast is risibly amateurish. Lou Diamond Phillips as a DEA agent is far too hammy, and Tom Amandes as Darlene's Mr. Rogers-like dad is, well, just plain creepy. Meanwhile, the film is sloppily edited, and it substitutes vagaries for suspense and narrative subtlety. Why is Alice's dad being such an asshole? What's the deal with that weirdo girl taunting Alice? And how did the smack get in Alice's bag without her knowing it? Or did she?

To its credit, Brokedown Palace is not as xenophobic as other films of its genre. Still, these far-flung allegories feed a curious, often self-righteous need: we root for the Americans' freedom from an unmerciful foreign government even as we revel in the assurance that, in the end, the dictatorship will impart a much-needed moral lesson. Whether the Yanks are released or left to rot, they inevitably get an Aesopian education about self-sacrifice, honesty, inner peace, and the tenacity of the human bond. Brokedown Palace, however, conveys a further vital truism, one perhaps better suited to the cold practicalities of Hollywood: cast Claire Danes in a role of daunting emotional range and she can save just about anything.

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