Noble: SBIFF Review

Noble - H - 2014
Passionate performances overcome an unwieldy story structure. 

This biopic about Irishwoman Christina Noble, who established a network of centers for homeless children in Vietnam, stars TV and film vet Dierdre O'Kane.

An unusual yet inspired choice, the life of Irish charity founder Christina Noble might not at first appear to be ideal for feature treatment, despite the network of service centers for street kids that she’s established in Vietnam and Mongolia that supports thousands of needy youth annually. However, writer-director Stephen Bradley manages to find a rather circuitous route to revealing her motivations and backstory that eventually coalesces around a joyful and rousing affirmation of the human spirit that will resound widely. The cast and filmmakers’ previous credits will clearly beckon broadcast opportunities, but sympathetic audiences could also make theatrical viable in niche release.

Noble (Deirdre O’Kane) began her journey working with Vietnamese kids in 1989, after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City as a middle-aged single woman, something of an anomaly in a tradition-bound Communist country. Rather than following a strictly chronological arc, Bradley starts off the film with a series of flashbacks that interweave with Noble’s Vietnam journey. These segments detail the misfortunes of her early life in the 40s as one of six children with a sickly mother and a charming, alcoholic father. After the inevitable death of her mom, Noble’s marginally employable dad eventually loses custody of his kids, who the authorities ship off to separate “industrial schools” around the country, with Christina delivered to an institution in the far West run by strict nuns of the type widely accused of abusing Irish children for decades.

Life outside the institution doesn’t improve much for the teenage Noble after her release, with a job in a commercial laundry and an uneasy reunion with her chronically unreliable father. A brutal rape leads to an unfortunate pregnancy, followed by forced separation from her newborn son, after the nuns who take her in put the boy up for adoption. Escaping Ireland to live in Birmingham with her best friend Joan (Ruth Negga), Noble falls for a fast-talking Greek Cypriot (David Mumeni) immigrant who turns out to be violently abusive toward her and their kids as their ill-fated marriage wears on.

It’s during this period of extreme duress in the 60s that Noble experiences a series of vivid dreams about Vietnam, focused particularly on victimized children and stoked by news reports of the war and the anxiety of her distraught circumstances. These visions prove so strong that decades later she finds herself arriving in Ho Chi Minh City with no clear goal, but a strong sense of purpose. Recalling her own personal experience, Noble’s attention is drawn to the hundreds of orphaned and abandoned homeless children roaming the city streets and squatting in abandoned buildings. Smuggling a couple of homeless girls into her hotel room for a hot bath and some decent food opens the door to their world for Noble, who discovers that city residents take virtually no interest in these kids, known as bui doi,“the dust beneath your feet.”

She also finds her concerns are not shared by the local police and immigration authorities, who threaten her with deportation after she begins looking after some of the kids. Eventually they relent and offer her a work permit, but she only has three months to find sponsorship for her proposed project to assist the children. Teaming up with orphanage director Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen), Noble begins plans to renovate a section of the facility to care for homeless children and literally chases down potential sponsors. With the clock ticking, she still faces the prospect of an ignominious return home if she can’t find support for her dream project.

Although occasionally inclined to conflate Noble’s character with the scope of her accomplishments, Bradley, an Irish-born filmmaker, nevertheless understands the inherent drama in Noble’s life story, as well as the necessity of varying the narrative’s chronological progression by alternating time periods in the film in order to maintain ongoing interest. With a style characterized by strong visual storytelling and a seamless rapport with actors both young and old, Bradley guides the cast with a gentle hand and a well-defined vision.

A TV and film vet, O’Kane nicely captures Noble’s signature mix of compassion and defiance as a survivor for whom defeat just isn’t an option. The young actors playing the childhood and teenage versions of Noble capably lay the groundwork for O’Kane to build upon. The Vietnamese casting is similarly strong, particularly Nguyen as the suspicious and protective caregiver who lets down her guard just enough to give Noble the fighting chance she needs.

All-around technical package is impressive overall, particularly the period sequences shot in Ireland and location scenes filmed on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Feature Competition

Production company: Destiny Films

Cast: Dierdre O’Kane, Sarah Greene, Gloria Cramer Curtis, Brendan Coyle, Liam Cunningham, David Mumeni, Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Ruth Negga

Director-writer: Stephen Bradley

Producers: Melanie Gore-Grimes, Stephen Bradley

Executive Producer: Michael J. Hunt

Director of photography:Trevor Forrest

Production designer: Cristina Casali

Costume designer: Charlotte Walter

Music: Giles Martin, Ben Foster

Editor: Mags Arnold

No rating, 101 minutes