Two young American girls have traveled to Thailand during the summer after their high school graduation. They had planned to go to Hawaii, but after deciding that it would be more fun to lie to their parents, they head to the land of “freedom.” Here, they meet a young Australian man who offers them tickets to go to Hong Kong for a weekend. At the airport, officials arrest them, and it’s determined that they have multiple heroin packets on their person.
They’re quickly arrested and taken to prison. One of them signs a confession (not knowing what it said, as it was in Thai and she only speaks English), they have a trail, and are placed in jail for 33 years. Drug smuggling is a serious offense, they’re told, and it’s considered lucky that they didn’t get a life sentence. This is the situation that Alice (Claire Danes) and her best friend, Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) are forced to deal with.
Inside the prison, they’re told that there are two ways that might be able to get them out. The first is by bribing one of the guards to let them out in the middle of the night (but this method can give them 15 more years in jail if they are caught), while the second is by trying to get a lawyer nicknamed Yankee Hank (Bill Pullman) to fight for them. They eventually record a tape and mail it to Hank, who takes their case after securing $15,000 from their families. He’s in it for the money, and that’s it.
Or is he? After a failed appeal, he continues on the case despite the fact that he is contractually finished helping them. Why? There’s no explanation. He grows a conscience, although we’re not sure why that is. Surely there are other cases for him to work on. This bugged me for the entire time after the turnaround happened. Not because it did happen — most viewers will expect it — but because of how it happened. Either scenes were left out or there is some lazy screenwriting taking place here. Judging by the overall quality of the writing for Brokedown Palace, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, but would happily be proved wrong.
Character development is essentially nonexistent, despite the filmmaker’s attempts. Once the girls enter the prison, they become generic characters, despite staying there for what seems like years. They’re essentially the same people at the end of the film as they are at the beginning, and while, for the most part, we don’t believe that they deserve to be imprisoned, it’s hard to care whether or not they get out because they don’t feel like real people.
I won’t say that Brokedown Palace is boring, because it has enough interesting elements to keep it from being that way. The mystery that Pullman’s character investigates is kind of fun, while the tensions between some of the characters within the prison, while not ever going anywhere or leading to anything, is fun in the moment. There are a couple of genuinely upsetting scenes with the girls and their fathers — at least, they feel that way until you remember who these people are and why they don’t necessarily deserve your sympathy.
I would like to see the entire story and how much was removed from the initial plan. The premise seems like it has promise, and the scenes that we get are well-made. It’s just that they never amount to much, and we seem to be missing large chunks of these characters’ lives. Whether this is the result of poor writing, poor editing, studio intervention, or something else, we’ll probably never find out, but the parts of the film than needed to be included to make it a compelling drama were not in the finished product that you can watch.
In fact, really the only time that Brokedown Palace works, and the only points in which it generates enough energy to sustain itself is when it focuses on the mystery about the heroin. How did it get there? Why was it put there? Does one of the girls know? Or did one of them do it? Conveniently, Darlene packed the bags, but Alice was the last one alone with them. It could be either one of them, and this helps the film stay entertaining, as audience members try to figure it out before the film tells you.
In that regard, you’ll likely be disappointed. The ending, which I won’t spoil, brings the film’s theme to light, but doesn’t answer our central question regarding the drugs. I get the “why” behind this ending choice, but it was a bit of letdown. It fit, and I won’t criticize the choice, but an additional scene of explanation after how the film actually did end wouldn’t have hurt, and would have allowed for some proper closure.
Brokedown Palace missed the mark on so many scenes that it’s not worth your time. Either the story wasn’t written in a way to give us proper characters, or the filmmakers butchered the story at some point, but the resulting film is one that’s hard to care about. It has a message, and the ending exemplifies that, but it leaves us wanting more — and not in the good way. The acting is fine, and the central mystery picks up for a lot of the slack in other areas, but this isn’t a film that you have reason to seek out. If prison really did change people, we might have a worthwhile movie.