2010, PG, 130 min. Directed by Marc Forby. Starring Q'orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, Shaun Evans, Jimmy Yuill, Julian Glover, Will Patton, Ocean Kaowili.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 4, 2010
It's certainly one of the most beautiful costume-drama/historical-romance naps you'll ever have, but this effortlessly evocative, endlessly ennui-inducing paean to Hawaii's final princess is, ultimately, a dull, Upstairs Downstairs affair. That's partly because it dances (eloquently, but still) around the grim truths behind the annexation of the sovereign nation of Hawaii in the late 19th century by the U.S. and partly because it's nearly flawless in its depiction of that time and those places while simultaneously being hopped up on pseudohistorical teenage rebellion. It wants to spark a fever, but it's a chilly sort of film. Director Forby and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain do their damnedest to give the proceedings a lush, tropical verve that acts as a semicounterbalance to the film's lengthy middle section, wherein the 13-year-old, half-blood Princess Kaiulani (Kilcher) is shipped off to England by her widowed father, Archie Cleghorn (Yuill). He rightly fears for her safety as Yankee agitators (led by Pepper's Lorrin Thurston) and a Dole Plantation forebear (Patton) force her uncle, King Kalakaua (Kaowili), to open his peaceable kingdom to the West or face obliteration. Once ensconced in the UK, she's made to endure the stiff, woolen awfulness of a Victorian education. "Where're you from?" hisses one catty classmate, zipping through the Victorian racism grid with an agile "Are you Irish?!" Suddenly, it's "two years later" and Princess Kaiulani's life seems mostly to have arrived at the intersection of bicycles, bodices, and boyfriends, the latter in the form of one Clive Davies (Evans), a nice chap with a penchant for aristocratic airs that belie his common lineage. When her uncle dies, the less-than-democratic actions on the part of the U.S. and its business interests are thrown into tawdry, imperial motion, and it's high time for the princess to act according to her station. The remainder of the film is less exciting for the history it reveals (loosely, although the film's palace sequences were shot in the actual royal Hawaiian manse) than for the intriguing question hanging over everything, namely "When will the princess get a clue?" The role is an easy/odd one for Kilcher, who trod a very similar path as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick's The New World. Obviously, she can do native royalty like nobody's business, but I'd like to see her do something else, just for once. Her performance here feels overly stiff, until it is necessarily bent under the weight of the crushingly melodramatic third act. That might just be intentional: A princess out of her court is still a princess and prone to act like one, but Kilcher's emotive abilities tax the imagination beyond the scope of history.