It’s not every day one is likely to hear about a young Irish woman leaving her home and friends behind to serve poor children on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Christina Noble, however, did just that, with her tireless devotion and love for the children of a war-ravaged nation leading to the making of a healthcare, education, and community-development foundation named for her, providing service to hundreds of thousands in need. Noble, a life story directed by Stephen Bradley and starring Deirdre O’Kane, is a picture of a brave woman juggling her persevering faith with her unimaginable circumstances and leaving a profound impact across multiple nations. The movie’s respect for its source material largely rises above emotional manipulation thanks to the script’s abundant, if sometimes slavish sincerity.
Dublin, Ireland, 1955. A child sings in front of a cheering, drinking crowd, giving this film a rather enchanting opening. Despite being very young, she has an amazing voice, and her skill endures well into adulthood. Christina Noble, an energetic but unruly truant who is in some respects the light of her family, narrowly avoids capture by an inspector wanting to ship her off to nuns. Her home, though a crowded slum, is lively. After her father smashes through their house in a drunken rage, Noble’s mother is left in tears, and the child must use her own beautiful voice as her only resort to calm down her father. It works, even as parts of the film seem split on whether they want to focus on their subject’s philanthropic work or on her concert hall-worthy singing ability. Her tuberculotic mother’s health is quickly deteriorating. Young Christina, overwhelmed with emotion at the hands of her to her large, collapsing family, sobs as her peers watch a comedy. It’s worth noting that the film’s original soundtrack and cinematography are beautiful, even as the disjointed pacing sometimes lurches wildly between being deeply evocative and tersely unsentimental. The scene of Christina’s mother’s passing capitalizes on both moods, as the dying woman’s name card washes away to nothing in the rain.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 1989. The war has long since ended, but the devastation has not. The movie’s introduction to Vietnam is unceremonious, and it’s implied Christina comes here out of compulsion, with her simple and visceral (and perhaps obvious) motivations explained in later scenes. Her heart breaks for her impoverished surroundings, particularly the children. The receptionist at the high-reputation-poor-quality hotel she’s staying at understandably doesn’t seem to love his job and makes no effort to hide it, and his presence gives the film one of several much-needed lighthearted touches, keeping the overall work from feeling so glum as to appear unconvincing–usually. A few scenes combine several elements such as the weather, the soundtrack, and the cinematography toward an almost manipulative contrivance that does a disservice to an amazing and important story; thankfully these scenes don’t drag down the film as a whole, especially since the production values in themselves are really lovely.
That being said, Noble and Noble both see the surrounding children as at once human and pitiable, particularly during moments like digging through a dumpster for food, but the children despite their poverty oftentimes seem friendly and curious. Their ongoing happiness often keeps the film from feeling like an extended plea for donations even as the children themselves are commonly treated like refuse. The marketplaces are full of life with a bit of humor added in, and a depiction of a lovely mural serves as one of many reminders that these individuals are people with a culture of their own, not merely peasants to be looked down upon. One character particularly comments on this last point, noting that others who want to “help” the people of Vietnam don’t always succeed.
A flashback shifts to Christina as a child, singing on the streets. She and her siblings fry potatoes in oil, but the existence she’s familiar with is shattered when a smug-faced inspector kicks down their door, piles her family (here including her father) into a van, and splits the family up, leading to an intense scene of the children screaming in vain for their neglectful father.
Christina’s life among nuns proves no happier, with one of them slapping her–tactfully offscreen–and even prior to that, it’s no wonder that she tries to sneak away. Noble is a very interesting spin on what is arguably a faith-based film, where Christina repeatedly prays with determination to a silent God: she proves a deeply imperfect but enduringly pious individual in the midst of a film with infrequent but strong language, sometimes unbelievably horrific depictions of violence, and references to and depictions of sexual exploitation including clothed photos of children. She’s a consistently sympathetic person despite the presence of some morally gray actions she commits or abets. Her few experiences with the Church are largely negative, some of them appallingly so, but her faith in her Lord keeps on going even when so many humans prove themselves to be cruel. “You better be coming with me,” she tells God when she announces she wants to go to Vietnam.
While others take a businesslike approach to Vietnam and its people, Noble’s motherly instincts get put to work here, even in simple, adorable moments such as her making Vietnamese fish and chips, much to the delight of the many homeless children she takes in. Christina’s own children are grown up, back in London. The vagrants she works with here are considered a scourge to other individuals who are seemingly more concerned for tourism. These children are the bụi đời–the “dust of life.”
Amid its status as a somewhat unconventional “Christian” film, it’s interesting that Noble proves willing to showcase its remarkable protagonist with all of her honest faults: she has a tourist visa, not a work permit, and thus her efforts on behalf of the children who desperately need her are technically illegal yet well-meaning. Despite her sometimes cheeky personality, however, even from her youth Christina is a legitimately caring person who pays for her mother’s gravestone out of her own pocket, leading to one of the few heartwarming scenes in the film where another person in her life comes through for her.
In another of the film’s many flashbacks, young Noble is later captured by rapist thugs, shown screaming then gagged in a car, then left–clothed, oddly but thankfully–in a field; this torments her faith, as her absence costs her her job despite the bizarre circumstances. It’s a brief but highly unpleasant scene that feels obligatory and could perhaps have been replaced with a quick explanatory voice-over.
Inside a government orphanage in the Bình Đại district, some children have blatant issues with nourishment or development, partially due to the use of Agent Orange in wartime. The poor and superstitious of Ho Chi Minh City sometimes believe that babies with birth defects are punished by Fate, abandoning them. It’s notable that the film’s depiction of conflict appears to be without a clear bias given to either side of the conflict; regardless of whose motivations or intentions are more justified, the story’s focus is that people still die needlessly, and one scene late in the movie is a hellish montage of destruction and violence; the chilling intensity of this depiction pushes heavily against the boundaries of the film’s PG-13 rating and is immensely unsuitable for young or sensitive viewers, even as the tragic irony is that many of the victims of this violence are even younger than the audience a movie such as this one is intended for. In a much quieter and less intense but no less tragic scene, some of the children at the orphanage inevitably die; it’s telling that one’s name, according to the story, means “cherry blossom.” A scene where the ink on this child’s name card gets washed away in the rain is a touching call-back.
Parts of later sections of the film can feel forced, with very quick displays of outdoor street brothels set to overbearing music as though the story has suddenly become afraid that the audience can’t or won’t take it seriously. Likewise, certain villainous individuals stare with a blatantly cruel look in their eyes as scenes give them an ominous, almost cartoonish focus. Some events feel like happenstance, which is somewhat justifiable due to this being a true story, but nonetheless the film retains its credibility in large part thanks to Christina never once coming across as being interested primarily for her own gain, especially as the movie doesn’t really try to make the first-world portions of its audience feel guilty or to present them as being selfish or uncaring. There’s no conscious, immediate juxtaposition of wealthy people being distressed at “trivial” problems alongside impoverished people struggling to find their next meal; various cultures and living situations are allowed to exist in their own contexts without being unfairly compared. A few individuals in high places legitimately care for others, thankfully making this well-made but sometimes brutal film easier to watch as it nears the end of its fairly brief running time.
Conclusion: From dust we were made, and to dust we return.
If “inspirational” is a film genre, Noble fits squarely in it–you probably already know whether a story like this will interest you, and Noble serves as a straightforward if devoted example of the helping-the-less-fortunate concept, being at once somewhat unremarkable yet reasonably enjoyable. (For those looking for arguably better movies that are also period pieces, I suggest Amazing Grace or The Help if you can deal with anti-black racial slurs.) The music and cinematography are lovely, even as both are sometimes pushed too obviously in the viewer’s face instead of letting the legitimate drama take its own emotional toll, and the performances are well done from the comedic to the disturbing.
Despite the inconsistencies in what is ultimately a serviceable production quality, the story itself is powerful, as summarized in a Chicago Tribune interview. The film does close with a beautiful shot of a community center and a glimpse of the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, whose founder would go on to set up more than one hundred projects in Vietnam and Mongolia, providing education and healthcare for more than seven hundred thousand children and their families. Several of Christina’s own children have worked with her, and she herself is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and has an Order of Friendship Medal from the President of Vietnam.
The movie poster is the property of Destiny Films and is sourced from the blog She Scribes.
This post was originally written and published for my movie-review blog, Projected Realities.