Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Noble is a bold little film which smashes through barriers as surely as its heroine does."

Christina Noble was born in 1944, a time that doesn't feel very long ago, at least not to those of us born in the 20th century, but which unfolds here as a time when Irish attitudes to children and young people were very different. After the death of her mother she was taken by the care system, her father unable or unwilling to look after her (it's hard to be sure which from a child's perspective), and she ended up homeless, literally singing for her supper, facing various kinds of predation and state-sponsored abuse. Despite all this, she turned her life around, armed only with her wits and a passionate devotion to Doris Day. Today she cares for other vulnerable children half a world away. Stephen Bradley's film tells her story, but it's not quite what you might expect.

There's an unwritten rule in fiction that when a character suffers they should suffer only once, or from only one type of problem, because otherwise audiences won't take it seriously and will lose sympathy. In real life, of course, things don't work like that, and neither is there always a narratively convenient point at which the victim can solve everything by taking responsibility for their suffering - sometimes there weren't an better decisions that could have been made and it really was other people's fault. This makes telling a tale like Christina's difficult - it would be easy for it to come across as mawkish or even comic. That it doesn't is down to Bradley's script, some sharp editing decision, and the performances of the three actresses who play her at different stages of her life. Each of them embodies a degree of fierceness that's unusual in any female character on screen. "You'll never catch me!" shouts the young Christina proudly, sticking her tongue out, and it's this attitude that makes her a compelling heroine throughout.

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By shifting around in time, Bradley is able to draw neat visual parallels between Christina's childhood in Ireland and her later experiences in Vietnam. This helps him avoid over-emphasising their similarity in dialogue, though Christina's past is important to her pitch regarding why she, as a foreigner, should be allowed to step in and try to help. Through discussion of the fact that many foreigners make such pledges and then fail to live up to them, he film neatly avoid falling into white saviour territory. It's hard work, not some kind of European genius, that enables Christina to achieve something. Bradley also illustrates her dependence on advice from local charity worker Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen Linh) and a pleasingly matter of fact performance from Dat Khou Nguyen Tien as one of the children she seeks to help ensures that the audience can recognise that she's dealing with people, not just pursuing an abstract cause.

Cinematographer Trevor Forrest captures moments of real beauty here but wisely keeps things toned down for most of the film. We spend a lot of time in institutions and offices, emphasising the nature of how poverty is managed and its distance from the environments where the poorest children grow up. Forrest intensifies the light to capture the glossiness of surfaces on brief excursions into corporate board rooms and hotels. This is a world inhabited by people who consider themselves quite separate from those on the streets, sometimes to the point where they are ready to directly exploit them. Forrest is careful not to present all better off people as the enemy, however, and a sympathetic performance from Brendan Coyle as an Irishman abroad helps to keep that in focus.

Depicting some horrific incidents yet leavened by humour and always energetic, Noble is a bold little film which smashes through barriers as surely as its heroine does. It deftly avoids hagiography to preset a portrait of somebody who not only is but feels real, and it tells its story with vigour.

Reviewed on: 22 Jan 2016
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The true story of an Irish woman who survived a difficult childhood and went on to help street children in Vietnam.
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Director: Stephen Bradley

Writer: Stephen Bradley

Starring: Deirdre O'Kane, Sarah Greene, Gloria Cramer Curtis, Nhu Quynh Nguyen Linh, Brendan Coyle, Ruth Negga, Dat Khou Nguyen Tien

Year: 2014

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: UK, Vietnam


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