"In the kingdom of Hawaii, there lived a princess..." These words are a great way to begin an animated fairy tale, but a lousy way to begin a serious historical drama. In his feature directing debut, Marc Forby has tackled a worthy subject dear to his heart or, more accurately, dear to his wife's heart. It's the short, tragic and honorable life of the title princess whose destiny to rule the island nation was scrapped when it forcibly became a U.S. territory in 1898. It's an interesting, little-known chapter of the American saga you won't learn enough about from this film, which is too sketchy with its history and too broad with its characters. The production attracted much controversy, least of which was the very notion of telling a story so sacred to Hawaiians (including Forby's wife). So it's apropos that Forby's biggest misstep is his thin and careful script that can't carry us away on the same winds of fate that would put a sovereign republic's future in the hands of such a young woman. Theatrical prospects are unpromising, unless there's silent and untapped interest in President Obama's place of birth. In length and temperament this is best suited to cable TV, which won't require moviegoers to try and pronounce the picture's title to ticket booth employees who can't pronounce it either.
Q'orianka Kilcher (The New World) stars as Princess Ka'iulani. This presents another local sticking point as a non-Hawaiian plays the film's title character, a figure integral to the state's proud history. Putting aside the argument that the role demands only to be played by the best performer willing to play it, Kilcher fits the bill in all ways. Exotic with slightly mannish facial features, yet still strikingly pretty, Kilcher convinces in Ka'iulani's weak moments and moments of resolve. But there's nothing she can do when the movie's fast start leaves us unconnected to someone we must not only care about, but through whom we'll be witnessing history. Despite Ka'iulani's unusual ancestry (her father was Scottish, but her mother was Hawaiian), we see as early as age 12 that her royal birthright was to rule Hawaii. Moments after she throws the ceremonial switch bringing electricity to Honolulu, the party is spoiled by colonialist Lorrin Thurston (Barry Pepper) and fellow American Sanford Dole (Will Patton). Although the backstory is fuzzy (a general issue throughout), Thurston and Dole demand that Ka'iulani's uncle, King Kalakaua (Ocean Kaowili), sign papers relinquishing most of the native's authority over the island. Since Ka'iulaniis expected to succeed King Kalakaua, her father (Jimmy Yuill) removes her from the unrest and exiles her to England.
For these initial scenes on the island, Forby gained unprecedented permission to shoot in Honolulu's ‘Iolani Palace, home to the Hawaiian monarchy. And DP Gabriel Beristain's meticulous, stodgy framing acknowledges the honor. In England, where things are grey and corseted, Ka'iulani is handed to the Davies family, a clan we learn little about except they're posh and their young son, Clive (Shaun Evans), has eyes on Ka'iulani. Clive and Ka'iulani develop feelings for each other but their relationship is underfed by Forby and, except for one effective stare down with some condescending royals, there's no drama milked from an upper class Englishman in the 1890's being romantically involved with a woman of mixed race. While it's not necessarily the film's responsibility to exploit historical parallels to create contemporary significance, mining these themes would have given the film extra juice. Indeed, at its core, Princess Kaiulani is the story of American imperialism, which has only been dominating the news for ten years. If Forby is concerned with respectfully retelling a sorry episode in our history to press a larger point, we now have further proof of the dangers of respectful filmmaking.
Ka'iulani's royal status is irrelevant to her new English mates and at school she's teased and told to return to "the barbarian place from which you've come." Heartbreaking, to be sure, but the "Two Years Later" title card denies us the chance to really align with her as she endures a forced acclimation into proper English society. Later, the movie temporarily gets going when Ka'iulani learns that her father's telegrams about the worsening conditions in Hawaii have been withheld from her, causing long-buried ancestral pride to reassert itself. Ka'iulani's transition from princess to freedom fighter does provide some zest and a chance for our heroine to show considerable moxie. Arriving in New York to plead her country's case with President Grover Cleveland (Peter Banks), Ka'iulani faces a snickering press expecting to see an uneducated "puppet barbarian." (The film's original title, Barbarian Princess, was changed due to pressure from some Hawaiians who didn't recognize an irony that, in its way, compliments the princess). Ka'iulani's charm and intelligence win over reporters ("why, she's beautiful!" says one), leading to a terrible scene where Ka'iulani compares U.S. intentions to an over-spiced hen.
Ka'iulani's accomplishments, capped by securing suffrage for all Hawaiians after the island became U.S. territory, are worthy of big-screen huzzahs. But there are enough questions regarding character and context that it wouldn't be surprising if Princess Kaiulani had been edited down significantly (which would also explain the abrupt ending). What's left is free of insight and depth, leaving us with little sense of the weight of her accomplishments.
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Q'orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, Will Patton and Shaun Evans
Director/Screenwriter: Marc Forby
Producer: Marc Forby, Ricardo S. Galindez, Lauri Apelian, Nigel Thomas and Roy Tjihoe
Genre: Historical drama; English- and Hawaiian-languages, subtitled
Rating: PG for some violence and thematic material, and for brief language, sensuality and smoking.
Running time: 100 min.
Release date: May 14 ltd.