Princess Kaiulani uses a humdrum folk-hero arc to tell the story of Hawaii’s statehood. It’s a shame, really, as history is too often told by the conquerors, not the natives. Making his writing/directing debut, Marc Forby’s well-intentioned effort feels like something you’d find on PBS, both in terms of its awkward script and earnest message. The actors do the best with what they’re given, yet even experienced professional engage only on a most basic level. By focusing on the princess and not Hawaii’s political intrigue, there several unanswered questions that’ll perplex those unfamiliar with this strand of American history.
It’s almost the twentieth century, Victoria Ka’iulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn (Q’orianka Kilcher) is a happy girl who’s next in line for the Hawaiian monarchy. Shortly after American missionaries Dole (Will Patton) and Thurston (Barry Pepper) attempt to overthrow the throne, Kaiulani is taken to an English boarding school. The victim of casual racism and a cruel governess, she’s at first unhappy, but eventually thrives. Years pass, and she develops affection for Clive (Shaun Evans), a sensitive Englishman to whom she’s eventually engaged. Then Kaiulani hears awful news: her aunt the Queen has died, and the Americans are even closer to establishing Hawaii as a colony. She leaves Clive for America, whereupon she appeals to Congress and the President to consider the plight of her people. Kaiulani finally returns to her homeland, and her diplomatic skills are all that stand in the way of Thurston’s colonialist goals.
Hawaiian statehood is a story told less often than a princesses’ coming-of-age, so it’s surprising Forby focuses heavily on Kaiulani’s English education. These scenes fall flat because the writing tells us what characters feel instead of showing us. When Clive declares his affection, for example, he uses so many adverbs to declare his love it sounds disingenuous. The England section covers a plurality of the movie’s already lean running time, so it follows Folby must take liberties what really happened (a cursory glance of Kaiulani’s Wikipedia page shows just how much is left out). The scenes in DC and Hawaii do not fare better, for Folby falls into the same lazy mistake. As an actress, Kilcher is intermittently engaging, so we know she transitions into a statesman only when she receives approving clucks from onlookers. A clunky metaphor dominates her all-important meeting with President Cleveland. Its heavy-handed approach is a distraction, even when the goal of the scene is to demonstrate Kaiulani’s rhetorical prowess. Forby should have taken a cue from Kilcher’s earlier turn as Pocahontas in The New World, a movie where Terrence Malick trusts audiences to grasp his quietly effective approach.
Despite its shortcomings, Princess Kaiulani has some strong moments. Forby and his cinematographer do excellent work, and their depictions of Hawaii and England are equally picaresque, albeit different. Pepper and Patton are effective despite their limited screen time (I have a sneaking suspicion their extravagant facial hair is more character-defining than their motivations). Kaiulani’s story is an important one, and given Folby’s stately approach, it’s clear he wants to impart its gravity onto audiences. The seriousness is a substitute for historical nuance, for even after awarding suffrage to her people, title cards inform us Kaiulani died of a broken heart. With historical missteps in addition to others, this movie is easily forgettable, and only diehard fans of princess movies should consider getting a ticket.