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Non-Review Review: Noble

Christina Noble has done a lot of good in the world. She has helped 700,000 street children in Vietnam and Mongolia. She has devoted her life to charity pursuits. Travelling to Ho Chi Minh City in 1989, she made it her mission to help those who could not help themselves. She has done a phenomenal job of raising awareness and of improving the standard and quality of life of children who would otherwise be neglected or exploited. She is affectionately known as “Mama Tina” by the children she helps.

There is probably a great movie to be made about the life and times of Christina Noble. Sadly, Noble is not it.

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Adapting a life into celluloid is quite tough. A biopic is always a risky proposition. It becomes even riskier when exploring the life of a living person, particularly a beloved figure. Noble has a lot of problems, most of which are rooted in a terrible script. However, its greatest one concerns Christina Noble herself. Like The Impossible before it, Noble is a story that seeks to expose the suffering of thousands upon thousands of people in a distant part of the world, but relegates them to the background of a story about a Westerner.

Landing in Ho Chi Minh City with the goal of helping the disadvantaged and neglected children – the “bụi đời” – Christina Noble finds herself struggling against overwhelming odds. She suffers repeated setbacks in her attempts to help. She is told that she cannot assist on a tourist visa, so she petitions for a working visa. She is afforded a three-month working visa, imposing a time limit on her attempts to make Ho Chi Minh City a better place for those who would be easily forgotten.

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The problem with Noble is simple. It is a film far more interested in the white woman who had a vision of God telling her to help the Vietnamese children than it is in the children themselves. All the tension in the film concerns Christina directly, with the people living in Ho Chi Minh City relegated to second place. “I know I’m being pushy, Carol,” Christina utters down the phone late in the film, on edge as the clock ticks down, “but my visa is running out.”

Noble is not entirely sure about what will happen if Christina’s visa runs out. Clearly, it would be the end of the world. The film seems to suggest that it would be impossible for Christina to reapply for another visa from outside the country, and never considers the possibility that Christina might be able to trust local administrators (her friends) with allocating funds that she raised from abroad. Christina is the one who is constantly under pressure, with Noble fixated on how terrible it would be if she were deported.

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It would be terrible, one imagines. However, it would not be anywhere near as terrible as living in poverty in Ho Chi Minh City, exploited and overlooked. The trauma suffered by these children is consistently treated as a secondary concern to Christina’s anxieties or uncertainties or concerns. The movie seems to believe that the audience is incapable of feeling for these suffering children, except directly through Christina.

At one point, Christina visits a room at the state orphanage that houses the children affected by Agent Orange. The camera opens on these suffering children, but pans up to focus on Christina. Later on, the death of a young child is juxtaposed against the death of Christina’s mother. At another point, Christina attempts to stop a sex offender from exploiting young girls. There is little emphasis on his victims; instead, we watch as Christina is forced to acknowledge that she has no real evidence that can be held against him.

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Early on in the film, local official Madame Linh explains that Vietnam has a somewhat complicated history with foreigners who came offering “help.” It is hard not feel uncomfortable watching a movie about a white woman who believes that God told her in a vision that she needed to help the children in Vietnam. There is a rather clumsy sequence where Noble tries to connect Christina’s personal traumas with the larger-scale historical trauma unfolding in Vietnam. Instead of profound, it seems trite and exploitative.

There is an interesting story to be developed there – to explore why a young Irish woman who lived a very hard life would suddenly travel half-way around the world to help children she never knew. Sadly, Noble never quite manages to develop that thread. It points out that Vietnam would have been in the news during Christina’s adolescence, but the film never quite gets of the line. There’s a very clear sense that Noble needed a few more drafts before it went in front of the camera.

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The script is awkward, stumbling. It doesn’t seem to trust the audience to follow along, and is prone to over-explain itself. Character development does not happen organically, it is delivered via monologues to God. Instead of conveying Christina’s struggling faith through conversation or action, the movie instead dubs it over in the most matter-of-fact manner possible. That sort of voice-over work is something that needs to be done carefully; Noble is not a careful film.

The film doesn’t know when to stop. It refuses to let anything slip by without drawing attention to it. Early in the film, a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City explains that “phức tạp” means “complicated” in Vietnamese. There is an awkward moment where Christina mishears those words for two similar-sounding English words that sum up the situation nicely. It is a clever moment. However, the film is not content with that cleverness. Instead, it makes sure to spell out the joke loudly and slowly for those not paying attention.

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(There are other demonstrations that the script might have done with a revision or two. On arriving at her hotel, Christina vows to get a smile out of the concierge, the solemn-faced “Mr. Reception Desk.” The character goes on to provide a reliable comedic foil. However, when Christina eventually does manage to make “Mr. Reception Desk” smile, the moment doesn’t feel earned. It is not a witty gag or a funny line. The character doesn’t smile because Christina gets through to him, he smiles because the script says so.)

Noble is a movie that clearly means a lot to a lot of people. There is no denying that a lot of hard work went into it, and that it is intended to draw attention to a very worthy cause. However, it is a terrible film. It is trite, cliché, overwrought and condescending. The final act even culminates in a suitably feel-good climax before seguing into a montage of the wonderful work done by Christina Noble as Coldplay’s In My Place plays in the background. None of it feels earned.

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Noble is – as the tile implies – a very sincere and well-meaning attempt to do something worthwhile and meaningful, but one lacking the sort of self-awareness or insight necessary to make it work. A noble failure, perhaps.

6 Responses

  1. The trouble with this review is simple. You have mistaken the subject. This is NOT a film about the children of Vietnam. Nor is it about raising money for Noble’s cause. It may do both, but that is a side effect, not the primary mission. This IS an inspirational film about an extraordinary woman, who overcomes great odds to make a difference in the world.

    The fact that it highlights the plight of those children in Vietnam is wonderful, but don’t fool yourself. A film that cut out Christina Noble, and tried to simply focus on the children would have a small audience mostly composed of true believers and bleeding hearts. The trouble with that is you are then preaching to the choir, and that really is a cliche.

    If you want to reach a more mainstream audience, and make them aware of an injustice, you often need to focus upon an interesting character and tell them a story. That may be terrible, and sad, but it is also true. People, for the most part, do not want to be preached to, or to be made to feel guilty. Most fast forward through Save The Children Ads. let alone pay money to view one that lasts 100 minutes.

    In general, you will have a better response if you inspire them, and make them feel that anything is possible. And this movie does just that. It may not appeal to the jaded, and it may not be great art, but I do believe that it accomplishes its purpose far better than your suggestions would.

    You are also missing some important themes about about patriarchy, oppression, religious and otherwise, and the triumph of the human spirit–things that your writing would indicate that you do not really relate to very well. But since this movie is clearly billed as an inspirational story, few people who are not interested in such stories will attend it, unless they have attended it for the reason of later tearing it apart in a review.

    • Thanks for the comment. It’s long and thoughtful, and clearly something that matters to you. For what it’s worth I am glad that you enjoyed the film.

      I suspect that we’ll have to agree to disagree about the film, but I feel I should clarify a couple of points.

      Most obviously, I love an inspirational story. I’ll readily concede to being one of the least cynical of the Irish film bloggers I know. I love nothing better than leaving the cinema with a smile on my face. I want to be inspired and uplifted, and I don’t go to the cinema for the purpose of cynically tearing down films with a wry and sarcastic detachment.

      (This is something an unfair stereotype often applied to critics, which is weird. Sure, there are cases out there, but nobody does something like this for an extended period if they don’t deeply and romantically love the medium. My bias going into a film is generally obvious. I want to love the film I am watching, as I think anybody forking over to see a film does.)

      It’s perhaps trite to offer counter-examples, but I really liked Pride. It was a similar film, in many respects. Non-Hollywood production, based on an inspirational true story, quirky tone, dealing with underlying themes that are both heavy and still relevant. I think Pride worked very well, possessing a charm and awareness that was sorely lacking in Noble. That is just one very recent example.

      With regards to the idea that the film is about Christine Noble, that is a perfectly legitimate creative choice. However, it doesn’t absolve the film of the sort of responsibility that comes with a film like this. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it is not what a film is about that is important, but how it is about it. I even open the review with a paragraph explaining that the subject matter is valid and interesting and worthy, as a way of preemptively tackling these criticisms. Christine Noble has done great work and has an interesting story that I would love to see translated well. This does not make Noble a good film.

      There is a way to tell Christine Noble’s story without treating her as just another Westerner whose personal drama is more important than the suffering of an entire lost generation of Vietnamese children and to whom they are just an instrument for working through her own issues.

      (I know that there’s a way to that story because it’s the truth and reality of the situation – what Christine Noble has done for the children of Vietnam is markedly at odds with how the film tells the story of what Christine Noble has done for the children of Vietnam.)

      With regards to whether an audience would pay money to see a film that treats impoverished children as more than just background material for a white lead, Slumdog Millionaire would suggest that it is possible. Of course, there are a lot of problems with Slumdog Millionaire and I wasn’t the biggest fan of it for various reasons unrelated to the casting or focus, but it does demonstrate that audiences are willing to watch (and pay for) stories featuring major and developed non-Western characters in conditions of poverty.

      The fact that it is clearly billed as an inspirational story does not excuse fundamental flaws, just as billing Transformers 4 as a brainless summer blockbuster does not excuse fundamental flaws. I judge it on those terms, and Noble fails as an inspirational story in a way that Pride succeeds, just as Transformers 4 fails as a summer blockbuster in a way that – say – Guardians of the Galaxy succeeds.

      But, as I said above, I suspect we may have to agree to disagree.

      • I would answer your criticisms in two ways. First, how is a biopic about a white woman who overcomes a wide range of adversity to go on and help what is now one million children obligated to dedicate more time to the people she has helped than to the woman’s story? This is a biographical film, not an attempt to raise money for her cause. I think it would be wonderful if someone wanted to feature the stories of some of the Vietnamese adults or children who worked with Noble, especially the orphanage director Madame Linh, and the original two children Christina encountered, Houng and Hang.

        In each case, however, that film would be their biopic, unless it was advertised and shot as a film whose subject matter revolved around a specific program. Slum Dog Millionaire focuses on a success story, just as Noble focuses on a success story, for the very good reason that people like inspiring stories that make them feel as if they too can do more and be more.

        When I say that people do not want to see a one hour or more ad for Save the Children, I do not mean to say that they do not want to see good storytelling. Nor do I discount the need for more inspirational stories about people of color. Many movies still portray counterproductive and insulting neocolonialist mentalities and formulas. But not every film about a white person helping people of color represents an inherently racist attempt by the white person to instill a colonial mentality in the “Other”. to apply that lens indiscriminately is wrong. Each case should be judged on its own merits.

        Noble does not look down upon these children, or the people she works with. She respected and deferred to Madame Linh in many ways, recognizing that she was a newcomer who did not know the situation and needed to learn. She went out of her way to live and work among the Vietnamese people, rather than holding herself aloof. The idea that a film billed as her biography should be faulted because it did not focus more time and attention upon the stories of those she helped is disingenuous. There are constraints of time, and budget, not to mention the continuity of storytelling to be considered. Again, I think it would be wonderful for other films to be made focusing on those who either worked with her, or who have created their own programs to help their people. But to condemn a story because it does not meet your standard of multiculturalism speaks less about the story than about the fact that you have a platform and an agenda you wish to promote.

        As for the film not being a good one, it has received a lot of awards already, many of them audience awards at independent film festivals. If you simply Google reviews for Noble, you will find the majority also praise the work. you have a perfect right to your opinion, but it is clearly in the minority, and a pretty jaded one at best.

        Call me foolish if you will, but I prefer to think it is still all right to help other people in this world without first worrying about the propriety of having someone of one”race” reach out to someone of another. We are all human beings first and foremost, and that means there should be room for deeds of kindness, and room for films about those deeds and the people unselfish enough and courageous enough to engage in them, whether they are white, purple or green with pink polka dots. Why can’t the world and our hearts be big enough to appreciate both Slum Dog Millionaire and “Noble”?

        “Noble” hasn’t been out very long, is an independent film with a limited budget and release, but here is the most current list of its awards:

        The film premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on 31 January 2014, where it earned an extra screening and won the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema. The award is given to a unique feature made outside of mainstream Hollywood.

        It was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Boston Irish Film Festival in March 2014.

        It won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Dallas International Film Festival in April, 2014.

        It earned the Audience Award for World Narrative Feature at the Nashville Film Festival in April, 2014.

        It won the Audience Award for Best Foreign Film at the Newport Beach Film Festival in May, 2014.

      • As I said above, I suspect that this will be something on which we may be forced to agree to disagree, but such is life. Same is true of the opinions. How Green is My Valley won the Best Picture Oscar, and Citizen Kane did not. Taste and opinion are subjective. After all, any movie with a significant number of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes will include reviews all across the spectrum. Everybody has an opinion, and the best we can try to do is state them clearly.

        That said, the suggestion that the only reason I disliked Noble is because I “have a platform and an agenda [I] wish to promote” feels a little bit like playing the person rather than the ball. I don’t think I have an agenda to promote. If I do, I would hope it’s good cinema, prompting people to see films like ’71 or Locke. I’ll be quite happy to acknowledge that there are all sorts of awkward and politically incorrect pieces of entertainment that I enjoy.

        (It also seems to imply I’m a bitter cynic, which I can only assure you is a very harsh assessment; if anything I assure you I am quite the softie. I still harbour a great deal of affection for Spielberg; I thought War Horse was very well made. You should hear what what the Kubrick fans say about me. 🙂 )

        When it comes to the “agenda”, I think it’s a bit of a reach. The Indiana Jones films are really just about looting other cultures so that stuff can be put in a museum, for example – Temple of Doom is a whole collection of unfortunate thirties stereotypes rolled into a single film. However, I’ll admit to enjoying it on its own terms, because it is a well-made film. (In contrast, Crystal Skull is probably less politically incorrect, but that doesn’t make it a better film.)

        I think inspirational stories are great, and I would never dismiss anyone who expressed that opinion. I love me some Dead Poets Society, or Philadelphia, or Up. I don’t think that all films about white people assisting members of a minority group are inherently or systemically prejudiced. I love the “we’re all just people, after all” moral. I grew up watching Star Trek or Doctor Who, shows with predominantly white leads who travel the universe to make it a better place on a weekly basis. (Even shows like The X-Files would occasionally have plots like that.) These plots could be terrible and unfortunate and racist, but they could also be insightful and clever and well-constructed. (I can cite plenty of examples of both from any of those shows.)

        My problem isn’t that Noble is a story with a white protagonist helping a foreign community. My problem is that it’s a story that treats the foreign community as entirely defined by their relationship to the white protagonist. It’s like that awful offensive closing shot of The Impossible, where the middle-class white people leave Asia on a plane. As far as the movie is concerned, that’s the end of the problem.

        Same deal here. The tension is not about what will happen to the children, the tension is about Christine getting expelled from the country and potentially giving up her dream to go back to her old life in Britain or Ireland. Which is a nice hook for a movie about a sports star or a performer – the good old “make or break” plot tension that you get around the late second or early third act – but one that feels really trite when it’s juxtaposed against the suffering of hundreds of thousands (probably more) of children, suffering that the film only calls attention to as it relates to Christine Noble herself.

        It is like, to pick another example of a type of story that is often somewhat weighed down by preconceptions, slasher films. Slasher films have a long history of being exploitive and sexist, if not downright misogynistic. There’s a lot of that which comes baked into the genre, with the tropes and imagery and symbolism and so on. However, it is possible to construct a film within the slasher genre that is not sexist or misogynistic. Alien is downright feminist. I would argue Scream is as well, as is Cabin in the Woods.

        Noble is not a bad movie because it’s the story of a white person helping foreign people. Noble is a bad movie because it makes the worst sort of mistakes that a movie about a white person helping foreign people can make.

  2. Good post regarding the movie. It was really a heart touching movie.

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