The new film “Noble” tells the true story of children’s rights advocate Christina Noble, from her troubled orphaned childhood in strict Catholic Ireland, through her rebellious teen years, to the constant pull to Vietnam that helped her realize her life’s mission. Coming from a fiercely strict and religious background, Christina (played in different stages of her life by Gloria Cramer Curtis, Sarah Greene, and Deirdre O’Kane) becomes an instrument of God’s purpose, but only after years of seeking out His message in a way not unlike Joan of Arc before her.
The film, based on Noble’s book “Bridge across My Sorrows,” jumps somewhat haphazardly from one traumatic experience to the next: Christina’s mother’s death, her separation from her alcoholic father (Liam Cunningham), abuse at a convent orphanage, her experiences in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). At its strongest, “Noble” raises the question: Are we allowed trials and hardships in order to inspire us and give us the gift of empathy?
In the parts of the film that show us Christina’s childhood and young womanhood, we are given a haunting glimpse into circumstances that would have broken a lesser woman, but that helped steel her for her eventual mission. Once, she and her sister begged on the street, Christina using her angelic voice to entice handouts from passersby; she continues to perform ditties from sunny Doris Day films while encountering the dismal conditions of the orphanage to which she is eventually sent. Later, Christina is able to see the same veil of tragedy on the faces of the “bui doi” Vietnamese children, often Amerasians, whose label literally translates to “the dust of the street.”
After her orphanage years and her time on the street, the penniless Christina is finally given a chance to move to the city, where even more poverty and trouble awaits her. She lands a job at a factory, squatting at an abandoned property in order to funnel every cent into a tombstone for her mother. Just as she is making friends and ironing out her bumpy life, a terrible (and disturbingly filmed) experience of gang rape costs Christina her job and leaves her pregnant. When she finds security and eventual marriage, she faces physical abuse, when her husband is not cheating on her. Yet, she still pursues God. She still listens for His voice and she still wonders why thoughts of the faraway war in Vietnam haunt her. Footage of the Viet Cong and children affected by atrocity flash on background television screens as Christina undergoes tumultuous life circumstance after tumultuous life circumstance.
With no advocate, these children live in the harshest of poverty, as unwanted mongrels treated worse than animals, until Christina becomes their savior. Mama Tina, as they call her, relates to them on a deep personal level; though everyone from politicians to shop proprietors would write them off as worthless, Christina sees them as the treasures they are. In one harrowing scene, Christina treats several of the children to the Vietnamese equivalent of fish and chips, a meal she remembers scrounging and saving for as she and her sister lived off the dust-pile in Ireland. The restaurateur, like so many, views the children’s visibility as something that might harm the city’s chances of rebuilding after the horrors of the Vietnam War.
Viewers—particularly viewers of faith—will be impressed by Christina’s determination as she fights for the children, risking deportation in order to secure clean living for the bui doi who have stolen her heart. Her eventual opening of a social and medical center that has become her legacy is a lesson in empathy and resiliency—of turning darkness into light.
I only wish this film had served her story better. While the switch between a historical and more contemporary thread is a popular narrative device that often works well, “Noble” uses it poorly, with jolting edits and ragged transitions. “Noble” is a film with exceptional intentions and wonderful source material, but it fails to tell Christina’s story in the remarkable way it deserves. Though the acting is solid, the sets well done, and the cultural consciousness pitch-perfect, too often the story gets lost in its muddled telling. And while its themes of compassion and of pursuing the souls of “the least of these” reflect the heart of Christ, the graphic scenes and foul language will no doubt bar it from a wider Christian viewership.
Nevertheless, I was struck by what did come through: the confidence with which Christina heard God’s voice, talked to Him, and awaited His calling. Despite everything she had suffered, she lived by her confidence that He was directing her path. This reliance on a higher calling and her acceptance of God’s leading are rare and valuable things. Christina Noble probably never assumed that her life’s work would play out on such a grand scale nor garner the attention that would someday lead to a film of her life story. But despite that film’s flaws, her ability to cherish children whose life circumstances were not unlike her own—no matter the great continental and cultural divides between them—is a wonderful thing to behold.
Image copyright Aspiration Media. “Noble” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, including some violent and sexual situations.
Rachel McMillan is a novelist in Toronto. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.