Noble, the new film opening May 8, is the incredible true story of a fearless Irish woman who escapes her poverty stricken Irish childhood to make a lasting difference in the wider world. Starring actress and standup Deirdre O'Kane and Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle, it's an inspirational true story of the how a Dublin woman worked successfully to save Vietnamese street kids. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to O'Kane about playing the title role, and why an actress known for comedy picked such a serious debut feature.
Those to whom evil is done do evil in return, or so says a famous poem. But some people choose a path of forgiveness over revenge, and in the process they make the world a kinder place than the one they experienced themselves.
People like that are very hard to find but in Noble, the powerfully moving new film starring Irish actress and standup Deirdre O'Kane and Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle) we meet one unforgettable example in Christina Noble, a Dublin woman who turns out to have the most appropriate last name ever.
As Noble shows, Christina has a hard start, growing up desperately poor in a family of eight in Dublin’s north side in the 1950s. Her mother dies before she reaches her teens, and her father, a shiftless alcoholic played by Liam Cunningham, is incapable of keeping the family housed or even fed.
That's the sort of first act that could flatten most people, but each time Noble simply refuses to be counted out. Later we watch as she takes that same indomitable spirit to Vietnam where she works to help the impoverished street kids find a place to live and a real chance at a new life.
“Christina wrote two books over the years and I read them and I remember thinking, I was going to connect with this woman, I didn't really know how,” O'Kane, 45, tells the Irish Voice. “Ireland being small it was not impossible.”
It did happen. When O’Kane became famous as a comic in Ireland she was frequently asked to host charity events.
“One day I got an invite to help the Christina Noble Foundation and by this stage I'd already been talking about her for 10 years. I said yes right away and that was the first time I met her.”
Hosting the fundraiser every year for the next five years O’Kane got to know Noble, a woman she had long admired.
“I learned she was very funny, she could tell a story, and somehow the penny dropped for me. Her childhood story is very harrowing but she managed to move past it and become a very strong funny person. So that's how it started,” O’Kane recalls.
As a girl Christina was separated from her brothers and sisters and sent to a brutal orphans’ home in Connemara, where the children of the poor were treated like inmates rather than kids. Girls were sent to the bog in all weathers to dig turf under the supervision of a nun, but when spirited Christina and a pal do a runner to a friendly pub to sing and dance for an hour, their punishment is as swift as it is unsettling. Noble pulls no punches in its portrayal of it.
In Ireland as a girl she is orphaned, abandoned, abused, half starved and bullied both by authority figures and the nuns. Later she's brutally raped by four passing men who leave her unconscious on the street. But at no time does she permit herself to lose her faith in God or in her own purpose. It's remarkable and moving to witness, and O'Kane's performance conveys the endless courage required.
“Most people haven't seen my dramatic work but I did 10 years of theater before I ever became a comic,” O'Kane explains. “I'm just better known for comedy. In many ways this film, which was in our lives for six years and which I thought would never get out of our kitchen, was hard to get made without A-List stars. You're in a battle royal there with the whole of the industry.”
But in the darkest days it was Noble’s own never say die attitude that inspired O'Kane. “I said to myself if she can do it, we can do it.”
Brendan Coyle of Downton Abbey fame plays an oil industry tycoon who Noble hits up in the film for funding for her save-the-kids projects.
“I've known Brendan for a long time. He played my husband in the series Paths to Freedom. He's a gentle soul but he's also a tough guy and he was the perfect blend to play his character.”
The patronizing cliché of the privileged white lady who visits a foreign country and teaches the locals how to clothe and feed themselves is carefully avoided. First of all, Noble isn't a rich do-gooder. Instead she's damaged and complex and far from perfect herself.
“Having grown up hungry and poor, Noble knows how to talk to the kids and she knows their private hurts,” O'Kane explains.
“That's what so attractive about her, she's real. She defies all the odds placed in front of her, and in fact every time I meet her I'm still blown away. What to leave out was our biggest problem with the film. We don't even touch on the fact that she also went to Mongolia to help the street kids 10 years after she started her work in Vietnam.”
That means traveling from a country where the weather is often 90 to 100 degrees to a country where it can reach minus 30.
“Homeless children sleep in the sewers where the pipes stay warm at night,” explains O'Kane. “Some 700,000 children have received protection, healthcare and education because of the Christina Nobel foundation.”
There's no difference between an Irish gutter and a Vietnamese one, O'Kane says.
“The Vietnamese people have a great sense of humor and they can be very serious too. There's great similarities between us and them. They have great resilience. I think it must be because both cultures have been brutally repressed. They really like to have fun.”
It has to be said that the subject matter may not have appealed to every Irish male film director, which is all the more reason to thank O'Kane's determination.
“I was amazed to see the rights to Christina's story were still available. It's interesting. When people think you're doing something worthy it's not cool. We've come up against that a lot.”
Audiences are a different -- and more important -- story however. “I've seen grown men and the hardest of cynics be moved by this film. People I thought might not like it are blown away.”
O'Kane and her husband Stephen Bradley have crafted a film that puts the voices of women front and center, a remarkable thing in itself.
Noble also has so much to say about the Ireland of the period and its attitudes toward women. It pushes back against the raw deal that Christina is dealt early on, and along the way it gives voice to the voiceless, which is what cinema is supposed to be about.
Here is an Irish woman who knows nobody and who nobody knows and yet look what she can do from the sheer force of her own determination. That lesson is worth 50 Avengers movies.
“We nicknamed Christina the Terminator because once she's decided she's doing something it gets done,” O'Kane laughs. “People are amazed at the scale of her projects. She has 100 of them going through Vietnam alone. We made the film because we asked ourselves how does the world not know about all this?”
Noble, which has won several film festival awards, including the Audience Award at the Dallas International Film Festival, opens in the U.S. on May 8.