Noble deeds, melo­dra­matic arcs

Melo­dra­matic and rarely sub­tle, ‘Noble’ is a fine trib­ute and shame­less crowd­pleaser, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TICKET | REVIEWS -

NOBLE Di­rected by Stephen Bradley Star­ring Deirdre O’Kane, Sarah Greene, Glo­ria Cramer Cur­tis, Bren­dan Coyle, Liam Cun­ning­ham, David Mu­meni, Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Ruth Negga How do you cap­ture a per­son­al­ity so enor­mous as Christina Noble? Over the last quar­ter of a cen­tury, the in­domitable Dubliner has toiled en­er­get­i­cally to im­prove the lot of or­phaned and aban­doned chil­dren in South East Asia. Those pub­lic achieve­ments ask a great deal of a bi­o­graph­i­cal film-maker, but it is, per­haps, harder still to get any grip on Noble’s tragic, puzzling, oc­ca­sion­ally fan­tas­tic per­sonal jour­ney.

Stephen Bradley’s re­sponse in his big, thump­ing bruiser of a film has been to un­plug the tearducts, ramp up the pe­riod de­tail and fuel the melo­drama. Noble is rarely sub­tle. The de­pic­tions of the hero­ine’s life in grim mid-cen­tury Ire­land have all the dustily pic­turesque mis­ery of a Cather­ine Cook­son adap­tion (by most ac­counts, Noble’s early ex­pe­ri­ences were con­sid­er­ably worse than those rep­re­sented in the film).

More than a few char­ac­ters tele­graph their loom­ing nar­ra­tive arcs within seconds of ap­pear­ing on screen: the creepy sex tourist; the ini­tially resistant, ul­ti­mately help­ful, func­tionary; the nun who seems “nice at first”. Yet there is no doubt that the thing works. Fu­elled by ex­cel­lent per­for­mances, Noble has an un­com­pli­cated in­tegrity to it that will warm even the most resistant heart.

Bradley, who writes and di­rects, em­ploys an ef­fec­tive twin nar­ra­tive. We be­gin with Noble, in the adult form of Deirdre O’Kane, mak­ing her first jour­ney to Viet­nam dur­ing the 1980s. She checks in at a down-at-heel ho­tel and, be­fore too long, has be­gun the be­nign med­dling that char­ac­terises so many of the most ef­fec­tive char­ity cam­paign­ers. Ev­ery now and then we flash back to find the young Christina grow­ing up in Ire­land. Her mother dies when she is still a child.

Her fa­ther –it had to be the un­stop­pable Liam Cun­ning­ham – is de­picted as a clas­sic in­car­na­tion of the some­times love­able, of­ten drunk, al­ways in­cor­ri­gi­ble layabout. Christina ends up in a re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tion of de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar bru­tal­ity and goes on to suf­fer home­less­ness, sex­ual vi­o­lence and the for­mal ab­duc­tion of her first child.

Bradley and Trevor For­rest, his gifted cin­e­matog­ra­pher, demon­strate that the best way to rep­re­sent 1950s Ire­land is to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that looks like the 1930s any­where else. The crowded ten­e­ments, heav­ing pubs and icy chil­dren’s home are slightly pret­ti­fied, but this still looks like a sor­did Repub­lic. Bri­tain’s west-mid­lands, to where Christina em­i­grated for fur­ther ad­ven­tures, comes across like Las Ve­gas by com­par­i­son.

The stuff of magic-re­al­ism

The film-mak­ers have some trou­ble mak­ing sense of the most pe­cu­liar episode in the story. Noble got the idea to travel to Viet­nam after hav­ing a dream about that coun­try dur­ing the 1970s. This is the stuff of magic-re­al­ism and it sits oddly in a film oth­er­wise grounded in the dust and soil of every­day life. Real life gen­uinely can be more bizarre than fic­tion.

The film would be noth­ing with­out ro­bust ac­tors. Hap­pily, Bradley has dragged out two ex­cel­lent turns to support O’Kane’s sturdy lead. Glo­ria Cramer Cur­tis is ir­re­press­ible as the child­hood Noble: a noisy, ca­pa­ble scamp who loved to war­ble the songs of Doris Day. The Tony- and Olivier-nom­i­nated Sarah Greene, one of our best young ac­tors, is noth­ing less than mag­nif­i­cent as Christina in late ado­les­cence and young adult­hood. Her friend­ship with Ruth Negga’s plucky fire­ball has the mak­ings of a film in its own right.

Ul­ti­mately it is the aware­ness of a true story – both ter­ri­ble and in­spir­ing – lurk­ing be­neath the clever ar­ti­fice that al­lows Noble to surge. Ciarín Scott’s ex­cel­lent forth­com­ing doc­u­men­tary, In a House That Ceased to Be, will tell the story from a more sober per­spec­tive. For now, this storm­ing biopic will do very nicely as trib­ute and shame­less crowd­pleaser.

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