This potentially fascinating tale of how the Hawaiian Islands lost their independence and were annexed to the United States, coupled with the romantic saga of a beloved half-Hawaiian, half-Scottish princess who battled injustice, is ripe with potential. But British filmmaker Marc Forby drains the inherent drama out of the true story, rendering it a one-dimensional period piece more suitable for the History Channel.
In 1888 in Honolulu, the long-reigning Royal Family was challenged by a rebel agistator, Lorrin Thurston (Barry Pepper), with links to local businessmen and the American government. Within months, King Kalakaua (Ocean Kaowili) was overthrown and his young niece/successor, 13 year-old Princess Kaiulani (Q’orianka Kilcher), was dispatched to live with her widower father’s British friends, the aristocratic Davies family. During her boarding school education in Victorian England, the proud, high-spirited, native Princess was often subjected to racial prejudice and kept unaware that – in 1893 – the traditional Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown, backed by the U.S. Marines. Anguished at age 17, when she learned the truth, and torn between her love for Clive Davies (Shaun Evans) and her loyalty to her homeland, she sailed off to Washington, D.C., determined to speak to President Grover Cleveland to try to halt American imperialism. When that plea failed, using her considerable diplomatic skills, she was able to win universal suffrage for her people under the new American constitutional rule.
In the context of today’s world, Kiulani’s persuasive message resonates for the 360 million indigenous peoples around the world who are currently struggling for dignity, self-determination and cultural survival – one that obviously touches Q’orianka Kilcher (“The New World”), born in Germany to a Peruvian artist father of Quechua/Huachipaeri descent and a part Swiss/part Alaskan mother. Yet writer/director Marc Forby fails to effectively dramatize Kulani’s doomed plight and her courageous, compassionate nobility, relying on lengthy exposition, heavy-handed symbolism involving ‘memory’ seashells and stunning cinematography, including access to exclusive interiors of Iolani Palace.
So on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Princess Kaiulani” is an intriguing, yet stilted 6. Wait for the dvd.