Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 100 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. The film is a biopic about Irish children’s advocate Christina Noble, and it traces her life through her impoverished childhood, stints with the nuns, and various violence that happens to her. There is some cursing, characters die, her alcoholic father goes on destructive benders, some bullying, some abuse against children (a nun slaps Christina in the face), some sex (men and women are seen clothed in bed together), some sexual violence (a character is gang-raped off-screen), the suggestion of pedophilia (a man tries to take a young girl up to his hotel room), and images of the Vietnam War, including bombings, explosions, and people running from the violence.
Irish children’s advocate Christina Noble has led a difficult life, but the biopic ‘Noble’ tries to include too much and ends up saying too little.
By Roxana Hadadi
Given everything Irish children’s advocate Christina Noble has been through in her life, including two stints with famously abusive Irish nuns, domestic violence, and an uphill battle against providing shelter and safety for Vietnamese orphans that would become Noble’s second family, you would think the biopic “Noble” would be more interesting. But it’s overstuffed plot, choppy format, and clunky religious themes pull the film into too many different directions. It never establishes a rhythm that works.
“Noble,” written and directed by Stephen Bradley, picks up in Noble’s destitute childhood in Ireland and ends in the streets of Vietnam, where Noble has dedicated decades of her life to protecting the country’s “dust of life” children, publicly reviled orphans with no one to care for them and no place to go. Of course, the mission of the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation is a worthwhile one, and what she’s accomplished (100 projects in Vietnam and Mongolia, education and healthcare to 700,000 children and their families, awards from the British and Vietnamese governments) is undeniably respectable. But the flaw of “Noble” is how it limits its characterization of her to only a few things (she talks to God, she likes Doris Day) while also glossing through her life at a rapid pace. There’s no depth given to anything, and no time for any of it to really resonate with us. We’re aghast at things that happen to her because they’re horrible things to happen to anyone, not just because they happen to Noble. The emotional connection we’re supposed to have with her, the empathy and the sympathy, don’t come genuinely.
The film portrays Noble’s life in two different time periods: In the film’s present in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 1989, a middle-aged Noble arrives in the country unsure of what has drawn her there but convinced that her mission is to save Vietnamese children from the same homelessness and abandonment that defined her youth. And through flashbacks, we see those struggles, beginning with Noble’s mother’s death at the age of 10, her alcoholic father’s utter absence from their lives, her being sent to abusive nuns who physically hurt the little girls in their care, her sleeping in a cemetery when she reached adulthood because of her lack of family, and a series of sexual and domestic violence that plagues her life after her teen years.
But it’s all presented rapidfire and often obliquely (clearly to maintain the film’s PG-13 rating), so fast that you can barely tell what you’re feeling, let alone what Noble is: In the span of a few minutes, in four consecutive scenes, Noble is raped, learns that she’s pregnant, has the child, and then the nuns give him up for adoption without telling her. There’s no presentation of her emotionally processing her abuse, or going through her pregnancy, or bonding with her child. It’s all just there as a way to check off elements of Noble’s life, and the inclusion alone is supposed to be enough. It’s not, not in that sequence, or when Noble learns about her husband’s philandering and is subject to his off-screen abuse, or in another scene, when Noble takes in two Vietnamese children and then all of a sudden has a crowd more. “Noble” never lets things build, either scenes or relationships or characters, and that mistake makes the film formulaic and methodical rather than engaging and emotional.
And then there’s the Christian aspect. Interestingly, religious figures aren’t presented well at all: when Noble’s mother is sick and she stays overnight praying in church, the priest who finds her the next morning scoffs at her, “That’s enough nonsense. God can’t cure everyone”; when Noble sings during her first placement with the nuns as a child, she’s slapped in the face; when the other nuns steal her son from her, they lecture her on how it’s a great idea. It’s only Noble’s personal relationship with God that’s displayed positively, and even then it’s challenging and testy, with Noble following the eye-for-an-eye mentality and complaining, “Have you forgotten me completely?” It’s an interesting element of the film and one of the most believable aspects of Noble’s personality, in a script that otherwise glosses over so much.
At least the film has a strong Irish bent that feels genuine and helps round Noble out. In Vietnam, when someone asks her, “You’re English?” she sarcastically replies, “Irish, big difference”; when she uses eel to make the orphans fish and chips, she brightly asks, “You want salt and vinegar on those?” If only the film could have provided more attention to the Vietnamese children themselves, most of whom are presented without names and very few with personalities. At one point, Noble states that her mission is “treating third-world children the same as first-world children,” but in “Noble,” we never get to know them at all. It’s those storytelling oversights, both in how Noble’s life is presented and how the lives of the Vietnamese children she’s saving are presented, that are the film’s barrier to true emotional resonance.
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