Hawaiian history looks great, less filling, in ‘Princess Ka’iulani’
She is a cultural heroine in Hawaii. The last princess of the royal line, she fought with poise and determination to preserve Hawaiian independence even as American military and political forces were robbing the islands of their self-governing sovereignty. She exists in a historical moment blighted by unsavory skullduggery on the part of the United States that most Americans deserve to know more about. Hers is an epic story of gender, race, class, heartbreak, perseverance, and unswerving courage.
Too bad it inspires such a lukewarm effort in rookie filmmaker Marc Forby’s Princess Ka’iulani. Shot on location in Honolulu (including interiors inside the royal Iolani Palace), and in Britain, Forby’s film aims for historical grandeur and righteous moral fervor. But while he offers a cogent depiction of how American business interests hijacked the Kingdom of Hawaii and stole the islands from their people in the name of “democracy,” Forby’s pedestrian storytelling never quite lives up to the story being told. It’s a perfectly workmanlike effort, but, given the material, it could have been much more stirring.
Q’orianka Kilcher (the young Peruvian-Swiss actress who played Pocahontas in The New World) brings regal bearing and multicultural integrity to the part of Princess Ka’iulani. Daughter of seafaring Scotsman and onetime Royal Governor of O’ahu, Archibald Cleghorn (Jimmy Yuill) and a Hawaiian mother of royal blood (who dies when the princess is a young girl), Ka’iulani is the favorite niece and designated heir of childless King Kalakaua (Ocean Kaowili) and his royal sister, Liliu’okalani (an impressive Leo Anderson Akana).
The story begins in 1889, when Western capitalism in the form of American sugar companies have invaded the island. Teenage Ka’iulani is present one night at a royal ceremony disrupted by a party of armed Americans demanding that the generations-old monarchy step aside in favor of a so-called “constitution.” Instigators include villainous American cabinet minister Thurston (Barry Pepper), whose plan is to obtain 100 percent of political power in the islands for the “haole” foreigners who represent 10 percent of the population, and Sanford Dole (Will Patton), a Yank businessman afflicted with a latent conscience.
For the princess’ own safety, her father packs her off to England to stay with family friends, enrolling Ka’iulani in a boarding school where the snooty English girls and martinet headmistress constantly sneer that “nobody cares that you’re a princess.” During the four years she spends being educated as “a respectable lady,” U.S. troops land in Hawaii and slaughter all who oppose them. Her uncle’s monarchy is overthrown, and when Liliu’okalani, now Queen, refuses to recognize a new constitution “crafted by thieves,” she’s placed under indefinite house arrest.
Most of this drama happens offscreen, or is conveyed in little backstory vignettes. In the foreground, Forby invents a never-very-convincing romance between Ka’iulani and Clive (Shaun Evans), the son of her English host family. (It’s as if Forby doesn’t believe the princess’ story is dramatic enough unless she has to choose between her country and the man she loves.) Eventually, Ka’iulani embarks on a campaign against the American annexation of Hawaii that leads her all the way to a diplomatic meeting with President Grover Cleveland.
The film is most successful in exposing this shameful episode in U.S.-Hawaiian history, and as an artifact of cultural pride. But too many trite scenes leech the spark out of the story—like when a timorous Ka’iulani throws out her prepared speech and charms a bunch of gruff old Central Casting newshounds at her first press conference, or when the gallant Clive reminds an insulting duchess that Ka’iulani’s noble bloodline is centuries older than her own. Forby also attempts a feel-good finale, implying that Ka’iulani’s success in petitioning the U.S. government to halt annexation (a petition that ultimately failed) somehow restores voting rights to indigenous Hawaiians disenfranchised by the bogus constitution.
It’s all done with the best possible intentions, and it’s an often lovely film to look at. But this gripping story ought to stir the soul in a way this film never does.
PRINCESS KA’IULANI ★★1/2
With Q’orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, and Jimmy Yuill. Written and directed by Marc Forby. A Matador release. Rated PG. 100 minutes