TBS' 'Bangkok Hilton' is weighty, absorbing


It's no coincidence "Graeme Greene" is an assumed name of the central character in a captivating miniseries making its American premiere tonight on cable's TBS service. "Bangkok Hilton" comes across as nothing less than a fond homage to English novelist Graham Greene.

Starring Denholm Elliott and Nicole Kidman, the six-hour drama (seen in two parts at 8:05 tonight and tomorrow on TBS, with 1:20 a.m. repeats each night) deals with the same issues of salvation/redemption and self-discovery common to many of Greene's more serious works (as opposed to his best known spy-chase, "The Third Man").

Lest you be put off by such weighty matters, however, know that "Bangkok Hilton" is also an absorbing thriller of decidedly modern content (drug-smuggling), handsomely mounted on location and starring the captivating Kidman (recently seen with Tom Cruise in "Days of Thunder").

One of the nicest things about cable is that it exposes more foreign fare than is commonly seen on American broadcast TV. Said by TBS to have been Australia's top-rated miniseries of 1989, "Bangkok Hilton" is the work of George Miller and Byron Kennedy (with script writer Terry Hayes), whose "Mad Max" movie trilogy helped bring American attention to Australia as a film nation to be reckoned with. (Not to mention the home of some stylish performers, including Mel Gibson and now Kidman.)

The miniseries' title is the nickname of a Thai prison into which Kidman's character lands, the dupe of a drug smuggler. Somewhat like her role in the gripping cult film "Dead Calm" (in which she triumphs over a deranged killer on a yacht in mid-ocean), Kidman is equally riveting as an innocent who must find her own inner strength.

But the real star of the miniseries is the familiar Elliott, a character actor best known to American audiences as fuddy-duddy Marcus Brody in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Here, he is a figure right out of Greene.

Son of a military hero, Hal Stanton was cashiered out of Her Majesty's army in disgrace over an incident in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. "A man with a lot of past . . . and very little future," is how he describes himself, a rumpled and sozzled lawyer in Thailand, the very site of his wartime disgrace. (Indo-China was the scene of some of writer Greene's non-fiction.)

Kidman plays the daughter Stanton did not know he had, the offspring of a sweet liaison with a sheltered young girl in Australia. The affair ended when Stanton's past once again caught up with him. Now, 20 years later, Katrina Stanton becomes the means of her father's redemption and he the means of her salvation.

Saying much more would spoil the splendid pace and texture of the film.

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