Mark Reviews Movies


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Marc Forby

Cast: Q'orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, Will Patton, Shaun Evans, Tamzin Merchant, Jimmy Yuill, Leo Anderson Akana

MPAA Rating: PG (for some violence and thematic material, and for brief language, sensuality and smoking)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 5/14/10 (limited); 5/21/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 20, 2010

Princess Ka'iulani is not the story of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. It is not the story of the life of eponymous crown princess, who attempted to regain the control of the native monarchy. On the surface, it contains these elements of history and biography, but they remain superficial, quickly touching upon the key historical moments and motivations and bypassing stretches of time in the growth of its heroine to arrive at those more important events.

What exists underneath is merely the romance, both the one she has with a young man and the narrative that turns her into a legendary figure. Here is a woman defined by the politics and ambitions of those around her transformed into a heroic martyr for her country. The two traits exist in reality, and it's a paradox the movie cannot come to grasp.

This romantic view of her life, one that ends early and is spent dwelling on the past as though well aware that all good things—specifically the sovereignty of her homeland—will end, is effective for what it is. The problem is how much is condensed or glossed over to achieve it.

Ka'iulani (Q'orianka Kilcher), born Victoria to her royal Hawaiian mother and Scottish father, is second in line to the throne. Her mother died when she was young, and her father (Jimmy Yuill) maintains a distant relationship to her.

As the kingdom begins entering the modern era (The princess throws the switch at a ceremony to celebrate the integration of electricity in Honolulu), the business affairs of Europe and America start to turn the tide of the state of government. Lorrin A. Thurston (Barry Pepper) and Sanford B. Dole (Will Patton) are two local politicians (Although as portrayed here, they seem as outsider as they come) and businessmen, who attempt to lead a failed coup the same night.

Fearing for the princess' safety, the king (Ocean Kaowili) and her father decide Ka'iulani's future for the moment lies in England, where she is raised by family associates, befriends their daughter Alice (Tamzin Merchant), falls in love with their young son Clive (Shaun Evans), and encounters brief prejudice at her school (not because it stops but because it's observed in the single scene of her educational environment).

Intercutting between Ka'iulani's experience in England—which amounts to little more than growing to love Clive instead of hating him—and the backroom talks and political machinations of Thurston and Dole—which amount to little more than devious discussions without much context—writer/director Marc Forby only vaguely enlightens on either situation.

The romance between Ka'iulani and Clive makes two points well. First, it sets up a symbolic decision for her, between the duty to her home and the potential for what would be more socially acceptable. Second, it emphasizes her independence. It is a sweet story (and more than likely fictional), but the dynamic between the two, in which he recognizes the importance of her obligations to Hawaii, ensures a certain level of maturity as well. Things turn sour, and there's a period of separation. How he proposes their reunion and her reaction to it are the ultimate reason for the relationship.

After the overthrow of the Hawaiian government, Ka'iulani begins a tour of the United States. Without the benefits of a status as a foreign emissary (As there is no monarchy in power, her title as heir to the throne means nothing), she speaks to the press (who, after a single speech, turn from dubbing her a barbarian to being overheard saying, "Accent says London, dress says New York, but her spirit says Hawaii" (It is a pretty bad line)) and is granted a lunch with the First Lady. There she makes her argument to President Cleveland (Peter Banks), using their meal and the available spices as a way to make a case against American and European involvement.

As an absentee participant in the direct fight for Hawaii's self-governance, Ka'iulani's story is intrinsically passive (Even her major victory depends on the change of conscience of one of the plotters). More intriguing is her aunt Queen Liliu'okalani (Leo Anderson Akana), whose struggle to bring forth a new constitution that preserves the rights of Hawaiians against the European- and American-friendly one of Thurston and Dole's design has real conflict and tragic potential.

As a rough sketch of a mostly ignored history, Princess Ka'iulani gives a basic overview of events and people. As such, it's lacking a sense of historical and personal context.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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