REVIEW: Flimsy Princess Kaiulani Serves Up Hawaiian History Lite
Designed to be both essential history lesson and costume weeper, Princess Kaiulani comes up short on both fronts: Deadly earnest intentions and lack of dramatic gumption ensure that the story of Hawaii's favored daughter remains under-told. Skimping on detail and narrative depth, the film manages to misuse its embarrassment of natural resources -- beautiful brown people in Victorian garb, for one thing; the tetchy notion that British colonization suited the Hawaiians better than American imperialism did, for another -- in its determination to honor them with a queasy blend of History Channel import and Merchant-Ivory sweep.
First-time writer-director Marc Forby had much to work with, beginning with the facts of Hawaii's 1898 annexation into the United States. What is often glossed over as a boon for all parties -- who wouldn't want to join the party in the USA? -- is actually the unhappy end of a sovereign and prosperous country, one that managed to figure out electricity long before the mainland did. Despite the fact that he shot in Honolulu's actual palace and on location in England, Forby's most spectacular visual would seem to be the young woman playing the Scottish-Hawaiian princess: Q'orianka Kilcher, who shares her character's distinctive blended heritage. Her features have hardened since her breakout role (playing another sufferer of American folly, Pocahontas) in The New World, and her sharp chin, long cheekbones and small, glowing eyes suit a tragic princess well. But while Kilcher can pull some impressive faces, they form the extent of her characterization. This princess has two speeds: petulant intensity and girlish charm.
She has, at least, plenty of cause to work the former. Carted off to England at age 13 after the Americans attempt to overthrow Hawaii's monarchy, Princess Kaiulani becomes just another piker getting paddywhacked through the British school system. Boarding with friends of her father's (her Hawaiian mother has died), she does not adjust to her demotion to "princess of nowhere" well: She's alienated from her host family, particularly the unimpressed young son Clive (Shaun Davies), and her treatment at the hands of the headmistress sets up an interesting angle on class and racial tensions. But Forby scraps the storyline almost as soon as it is established. We cut from Kaiulani's first, ominous humiliation at school to two years later, where we find her a little calmer and on the cusp of falling in love with Clive, whose initial derision practically stamped "future love interest" across his forehead.
Much of the history of Princess Kaiulani plays out in the same way. I still don't understand much of how or why the Americans were able to wrest Hawaii from itself, despite a host of characters who enter the frame solely to speak in clear, expository paragraphs. As the head royal-buster, Barry Pepper gets little more to do than twirl the giant moustache on the face of early American imperialism. On her way home via a stop in Washington, Kaiulani gets one suitably rousing showcase, when she meets and wins over the press; its capital is wasted in the next scene, wherein the princess, having scored a lunch with President Cleveland, crafts a tortured metaphor for Hawaii's plight using roasted hen and cumin as props.
Ultimately credited with guaranteeing the right to vote for the Hawaiian people (the Americans intended to deny it), Kaiulani was clearly a formidable woman, a character with character. We're told, as the film closes with yet more dreamy shots of her sucking face with her doomed English lover, that Kaiulani died at 23 due to what many believe was "a broken heart at the loss of her country." To flinch in the face of such a crucial detail of his central character's life is the film's parting reminder that its director, having faltered repeatedly in negotiating the terms of Kaiulani's story, lacked the wherewithal to close the deal.