Brokedown Palace

“My 13-year-old heart exploded”: looking back at the hidden queer love story in Brokedown Palace

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2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first official Pride march. To celebrate this milestone, Stylist is carving out space for stories of LGBTQ+ joy in our new series, The Moment That Made Me, in which we invite LGBTQ+ writers to reflect upon the moments they first felt seen and heard in popular culture. Here, playwright Iman Qureshi reflects upon the queer legacy of Brokedown Palace.

Saudi Arabia in the 90s was a place like no other. Famously, women were not allowed to drive. But that was just the tip of the enormous iceberg of control and oppression.

Women had to wear black gowns called abayas over their clothes, and most would also wear a head and face covering too. They couldn’t work in public facing jobs such as shops, and restaurants were segregated into two areas: the ‘family section’ where women were permitted to be with children and their male spouses, and a singles section, chock full of men. Family sections were always concealed from view of the general public. 

Bookshops were also limited, and much of what came in was heavily vetted or censored. A map of the world in an Atlas would black out the word ‘Israel’. Magazines would frequently black out women’s flesh. I often wondered whose job it was to sit in an office with a bulk box of sharpies flipping through Good Housekeeping, Top Gear and John Grisham novels, redacting anything the Saudi government willed not to exist.

There were no cinemas, no theatres. There was a single VHS store in which women were not allowed. The storekeeper would risk his job to keep a careful watch for the religious police, while my mother and I snuck in to browse and quickly pick our rental for the week. Snogging scenes were censored. Sometimes the cuts were so blunt it was hard to piece the story back together. Other times, I wouldn’t even realise something was missing until I rewatched the film on a flight or on holiday, and was given a delicious gift of steamy new scenes.  

Iman Qureshi
Playwright Iman Qureshi

My British school in Saudi participated in a mail order book club, and every year, we could order books that came straight from the UK. But even these were only slightly better. The UK was still in the grips of Section 28, and LGBTQ+ identities and issues weren’t taught in British schools. There was nothing remotely queer in the books that were flown in, either.

In spite of this, the other kids at school somehow managed to smell it on me. I was jeered at for being a lesbian before I even knew what one was. And perhaps I felt it sometimes too; not a realisation of being queer, specifically, just being different. Crushes at school which didn’t seem normal, an affinity for George from The Famous Five, a rather inexplicable fixation with Nancy from Oliver! 

In the absence of a fairy gaymother, I learnt to find comfort in unexpected places. The most memorable of these was a film. One the face of things, Brokedown Palace is really a film about friendship, but something in the story reached down into my soul and touched what had been deeply buried. Two girls, just out of high school on a summer romp through Asia. Alice (Claire Danes) wild and audacious, and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), studious and bashful. After a romantic entanglement with a smooth-talking shyster called Nick Parks, they end up in a Thai prison, on trial for drug trafficking. 

Brokedown Palace
Kate Beckinsale and Claire Danes in Brokedown Palace

I can’t remember where I was when I first watched it, or who I was with. All I remember is moments. The moment where Alice and Darlene first fall out over who gets to hook up with Nick. As Darlene gazes longingly at Alice and Nick as they dance, it was easy to imagine Darlene pining for her best friend Alice instead of some idiot they had just met.

Eventually Darlene hooks up with Nick instead, and a jealous Alice goes out on her own leaving Darlene to sleep off her night of passion. Alice obviously bumps into Nick – and do they or don’t they hook up too? Either way, Alice comes home, gifts Darlene a ‘let’s be friends again’ bracelet as intimately as if it were an engagement ring, then climbs into bed beside her. They hold hands before Darlene takes Alice’s arm and places it round her waist in a spoon. It was at this point that my heart, aged 13, exploded. 

Brokedown Palace
Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale in Brokedown Palace

Rewatching this twenty years later, I’m shocked at how this brief moment, barely a second, has permanently seared itself onto my brain.

The film continues. Touching moments of friendship, physical intimacy and heartbreaking fallouts ensue in prison. They link hands – at least they have each other. Then Darlene learns that not only were they played by Nick, but she was betrayed by Alice, too. While they’ve fallen out, Alice lays a sick Darlene’s head in her lap and strokes her hair. When Darlene recovers she pushes Alice away again. Then – spoiler alert – Alice makes the ultimate sacrifice, confessing to a crime she didn’t commit, and offering to double her sentence if the state lets Darlene go. It works, and Alice gives Darlene a long, final, tearful embrace before watching her drive through the prison gates away to freedom. 

Iman Qureshi
Playwright Iman Qureshi

I must have watched that film about 50 times in the space of two years. How joyful that an intimate friendship between two women managed to evade the state censors. How joyful too that an intimate friendship between two women also managed to evade my own self-imposed censors of shame.

Watching the film now, I’m troubled by the casual racism. It’s painfully derogatory about Thailand, Thai people and Thai culture. There are no redemptive Thai characters. They are all flatly awful. The heroes and victims are all white. I feel furious that the messaging I received then was that brown people are villains and white people are heroes. Also that queerness was equated to whiteness. And oppression equated to brownness. After all, as oppressive as Saudi Arabia was, Britain was living through its own era of oppression with Section 28 and the Aids crisis.

It’s no wonder that my identity has been such a struggle to reconcile, with each part of myself battling against the other, both internally and externally in the worlds I live in.

Despite its flaws, I’m amazed at the impact of such a subtle, ordinary film; how my stomach churned with desire at the arm draped over a waist, the clasp of hands, the tender stroke of hair. The film started a tiny revolution in my heart, enabling me to become who I am – a writer, hoping to start revolutions in the hearts of others. Maybe the Saudi censors were on to something – art is the gateway to change.

Images: stills via 20th Century Studios; Getty; photographs courtesy of author

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