Princess Kaiulani (opening today in LA and NYC), I was reminded of one of those paint-by-numbers templates I occasionally used as a child. I just had to fill in the fairly simple outline with the various assigned colors. Once finished, though, it usually made for a painting that I was pleased with and that my dear Mom thought lovely.
Such is the case with Princess Kaiulani. The film reduces the complex story of the usurpation of the Hawaiian monarchy by the US government during the 1890's to a streamlined, Reader's Digest version of real-life events. However, it is a gorgeous, worthwhile re-telling thanks to a fine cast; top-notch art direction; a beautiful, mostly piano score by Stephen Warbeck; and Gabriel Beristain's ravishing cinematography.
When American settlers launched an uprising against Hawaii's ruling family in 1888, the king sent his niece, Princess Victoria Kaiulani Cleghorn, to England for her safety as well as for a good education. The princess was the daughter of the king's sister and her husband, a Scotsman named Archibald "Archie" Cleghorn. A few years later, after the king died and his sister was placed under house arrest, Kaiulani was summoned back to Hawaii in a hopeful effort to work with the Americans and preserve as many Hawaiian traditions and rights as possible. During the course of her exile, Kaiulani fell in ill-fated love with a British man and met US president Grover Cleveland.
Award-winning actress Q'orianka Kilcher, best known as Pocahontas opposite Colin Ferrell as John Smith in Terrence Malick's 2005 film The New World, plays Kaiulani as the very picture of grace under pressure. The multi-ethnic Kilcher has matured into a lovely young woman and remains a refreshingly naturalistic actress. Leo Anderson Akana is wonderful in her few but powerful scenes as Kaiulani's aunt, the deposed queen. Will Patton (who memorably played Gene Hackman's assistant/lover in 1987's No Way Out) is effective as conflicted US-appointed governor of Hawaii, Sanford Dole. Unfortunately, Barry Pepper (of the infamous Battlefield Earth — which is not mentioned in his cast bio — and the more reputable Flags of Our Fathers) doesn't fare as well in the one-note role of the conniving Lorrin Thurston, who led the American imperialist effort to take over Hawaii. (At the end of the film, a card informs viewers that President Clinton signed a Congress-approved "Apology Resolution" to the people of Hawaii for the US's actions).
The straightforward screenplay of Princess Kaiulani was written by Marc Forby, who also makes an assured directorial debut. The film is handsomely produced by a team that includes Nigel Thomas (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and Lauri Apelian, who has produced several movies based on the works of gay horror writer Clive Barker.
Kaiulani was able to accomplish much for the Hawaiian people, including the right to vote, prior to her death at age 23. The princess's fierce devotion to her subjects was put to the test by her would-be husband, to whom she responded, "Do you think you mean more to me than my country?" Even if her life and times would be better suited for miniseries treatment than a 100-minute feature, this testament to the young leader's courage is better than nothing at all.
UPDATE: Princess Kaiulani is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.