An Irishwoman from a big family with scant means, Christina Noble works day in and day out to provide children in Vietnam and Mongolia with a future their families could not. After spending two years in Ho Chi Minh City fighting for children’s rights, in 1991 she founded the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation to offer shelter, health care, schooling and a wide variety of other services to the young and disenfranchised. But while what she’s accomplished is remarkable, her path to those achievements bore inconceivable cruelties.
To separate the extraordinary life of Christina “Mama Tina” Noble from writer-director Stephen Bradley’s biopic, which won the Panavision Spirit Award at last year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, is a sensitive effort. For one, the release of Noble marks the first time this true story has been given the big screen treatment, helping ensure her legacy isn’t forgotten.
Second is Noble herself. Watching this woman endure horror after horror—from the throes of poverty to the death of her mother to the loss of her home and family—and still continue, her selfless goodwill untarnished, might allow Noble to be judged by a forgiving set of standards. But the extent of Noble’s missteps stretch farther than that.
Noble spans three time periods of Noble’s life—one in which she was around 10 years old, from the time of her mother’s death to her being sent to an orphanage; one around age 18, during which time she left the slums of Dublin to just after she met her first husband; and one years later, when she started her work in Ho Chi Minh City.
Why a nonlinear structure is employed here, instead of keeping to flashbacks and flash-forwards, is unclear. Noble isn’t a psychological thriller—it doesn’t journey to the center of the human psyche or tackle time lords or memory manipulation or explore dimensions of consciousness. Christina’s battle isn’t with herself. The wandering aimlessness of the transitions between time periods causes further distraction; the result is a frivolous narrative that’s simultaneously boring and exhausting.
The performances are fair. Deirdre O’Kane, Bradley’s wife, whose background is in stand-up comedy, is fairly mellow in her role as the adult Christina, despite the extreme nature of her work and the weight of her world. Save for a showdown and a couple run-ins with closefisted bureaucrats, O’Kane maintains an expression of distant, lackadaisical charm. Her story deserves a heroine to root for, but we don’t get a very engaging or believable one. As Christina’s alcoholic father, Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) is an exception to the underwhelming cast, as is Ruth Negga as Christina’s sass-pot friend Joan.
Noble’s biggest flop may be its dialogue. The writing often gives way to the shallow heroics of Sarah McLachlan ASPCA-styled spots, and moments meant for comic relief fall flat at best, robotic at worst. Lines are never subtle, and some feel less spoken than spelled out, letter by painful letter—a favorite perpetrator coming from one of Joan’s suitors: “I like you, Joan. You’re funny, like… comedy. You know?”
Ultimately the film fails to illustrate the strength and tenacity that defines Christina Noble, nor cultivate a sense of intimacy and compassion between Christina and the audience. We are hurried through with methodical mundanity, like obligatory plot points meant for historical accuracy. One night, when a teenaged Noble was living in a literal hole in the ground, she was violently gang-raped by four older men, which resulted in her first pregnancy. The scene has the pacing and tonal depth of an HBO true-crime reenactment.
Noble is shot beautifully and stays true to the time, but even with a inspiring story of perseverance against the odds—one spanning such dramatic tragedy and enormous triumph—Noble never finds a pulse.
Director: Stephen Bradley
Writer: Stephen Bradley
Starring: Deirdre O’Kane, Sarah Greene, Gloria Cramer Curtis, Ruth Negga, Brendan Coyle, Liam Cunningham
Release Date: May 8, 2015