Two teenage American girls are jailed in Thailand for allegedly smuggling smack while on vacation.
Not so much a Midnight Express for the '90s, as a Thelma And Louise in the Orient.
High schoolers Alice (Danes), the adventurous one, and her more responsible best friend Darlene (Beckinsale), go to Thailand for a mega-holiday to celebrate their graduation. Soon after arrival, they meet a charming Aussie (Daniel Lapaine) who buys them tickets for a weekend in Hong Kong. But they never get there - airport police find heroin in Alice's bag and the girls begin a 33-year sentence in a Thai jail, the 'brokedown palace' of the title.
One of the English-speaking prisoners there suggests they contact an ambulance-chasing expat American lawyer, 'Yankee Hank' (Pullman). Hank takes their case but fails . . . Then spies a chink of light that shines along the path to hope.
That slow illumination, which sees the initially unpleasant Pullman reverting to nice guy type, empowers the film as a mystery thriller, but it is the relationship between the two girls that gives it its heart. Danes and Beckinsale are both excellent, portraying both the foundation and collapse of their relationship with aplomb.
Kaplan gradually reveals how different they are, showing Danes' Alice to be a tough working-class cookie, raised by a widower dad who runs his own truck business. By contrast, Beckinsale's Darlene is naive and vulnerable, with wealthy white-collar parents. By focusing on the human drama, Kaplan scores highly, easing up on the terror and squalor while piling on the mystery surrounding the pair's circumstances and increasing sense of desperation.
Aside from the strong female leads, Brokedown Palace offers stunning locations, keeps cockroach action to a minimum and asks moral questions that'll keep you talking until long after lights-out.