Eugene Weekly : Movies : 6.10.10


Soft Focus for the End of a Royal Line
Go for the history, not for the movie
by Suzi Steffen

PRINCESS KA’IULANI  Written and directed by Marc Forby. Cinematography, Gabriel Beristain. Music, Stephen Warbeck. Starring Q’orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, Will Patton and Shaun Evans. Roadside Attractions, 2010. PG. 100 minutes.

When Princess Ka’iulani premiered at the Hawai’i International Film Festival, the title was Barbarian Princess. Princess Victoria Kaiulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn was no barbarian, of course, but the heir to the throne of the Hawai’ian monarchy when the U.S. decided to annex the islands. 

This new movie, a biopic loosely based on her life, portrays Ka’iulani (played by Q’orianka Kilcher, a Peruvian woman who’s lived in Hawai’i for most of her life) in soft, misty light, often literally riding a white horse down the beaches of Hawai’i while wearing appropriate Victorian attire. In other words, it’s a soft sell, and for much of the film, also annoyingly romanticized.

After a coup attempt, Ka’iulani is trundled off to the U.K. (her father’s Scottish) for a British education. This movie’s England looks just like Hawai’i — soft light, green lawns, lots of water. A few requisitely nasty white British folks scorn the princess for her skin color and her country, but for the most part, it’s all quite TV movieish as she and other young folks walk on the beach, ride bicycles and fall in love.

But the politics and machinations of U.S. landowners, including Lorrin Thurston (very nearly a moustache-twirling villain, played by Barry Pepper) and Sanford Dole (Will Patton), provide compelling plot turns and horrifying information for those U.S. residents who don’t know much about the history of how we acquired our 50th state. And Ka’iulani quickly becomes more than an imperious whiny girl when she takes up the mantle of responsibility — even as the Hawai’ian monarchy is overthrown and the country annexed to the U.S. as a territory.

Princess Ka’iulani serves as a hagiographic look at a popular hero who died quite young, and it’s not cohesive or very good as a film (not to mention how good it makes Sanford Dole look). But it’s worth a watch, especially as a conversation-starter about the history of the islands and their native peoples.

Princess Ka’iulani opens Friday, June 11, at the Bijou.