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Princess Kaiulani
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Get Off Of My Cloud"
2 stars

If you are going to go through all the trouble of making a film about a historical figure--especially one who may not be that familiar to the majority of the moviegoing public--shouldn’t you go the extra mile to make sure that the story that you are telling is exciting and interesting enough to engage those who have never heard it before? That is the essential problem with the new biopic “Princess Kaiulani,” the allegedly stirring true-life story of a young Hawaiian princess who, at the turn of the 20th century, returned to her homeland after spending years in England getting an education in order to help preserve the independence of her people against the aggressive attempts by American business interests to take over the land for themselves. In theory, it sounds like a fascinating and compelling tale but as it goes on and on, it quickly becomes evident that it is anything but thanks to a lack of real incident, a screenplay that seems to be missing all the interesting stuff and the kind of stultifying, anything-to-avoid-offending approach one usually only finds in biopics of dead saints or live dictators.

The film stars Q’Orianka Kilcher as Princess Kaiulani, the adored niece of the king of the Kingdom of Hawaii and as the film opens, they have no sooner introduced electricity to the royal palace than it is overrun by American troops led by evil businessman Lorrin Thurston (Barry Pepper, all but twirling his mustache in order to underline his nastiness) demanding the ouster of the monarchy and the institution of a democratically-elected government--the catch, of course, is that only the land owners will be given the right to vote. This rebellion is staved off for the time being but the king sends Kaiulani off with her Scottish father () to live and study in England for her safety. Things go bumpy at first--Kaiulani is mocked by most of her classmates for her foreign natures and her teacher () takes great pleasure in ordering around a princess--but over the next couple of years, she settles in and even falls in love with drippy rich kid Clive (Shaun Evans), the son of the rich family she is living with. Eventually, the king dies and the monarchy is overthrown by the Americans and when Kaiulani finally gets wind of this (Clive and his family have been hiding telegrams from her aunt about the situation), she decides to go to America in the hopes of convincing those in charge to reverse the overthrow, even going so far as to attempt to lobby President Cleveland himself despite no longer being a recognized monarch.

As someone whose sum knowledge of the rich history of Hawaii is limited to the stuff picked up in old Elvis movies, I went into “Princess Kaiulani” hoping to learn something about a character who sounded fascinating on paper. However, as the film progressed, it turned out that I learned only two things of note. The first is the inescapable fact that, despite all the huffing and puffing about her accomplishments, she doesn’t really do much of anything here--she pouts and moons a lot and delivers a couple of speeches but other than that, she comes across mostly as a bystander in her own story and even her biggest triumph turns out to be remarkably short-lived. The second is the even-more-inescapable fact that the filmmakers don’t seem particularly interested in her actual story as they are in making the kind of simple-minded biopic that can be comfortably sold in gift shops all around the island. Instead of showing the difficulties of a young woman adjusting from living at the top of one caste system to the bottom of another, we just get a couple of quick glimpses of mean teachers and classmates who are quickly forgotten (except for the nasty headmistress who, in the film’s worst scene, comes knocking at Kaiulani’s door in the rain looking for a job years later after being fired from her post--a bit designed solely to remind us of how noble our heroine is). Instead of seeing her develop the skills that would later allow her to try to campaign for the freedom of her people, we get endless scenes depicting the gooney, go-nowhere romance with the singularly uninteresting Clive. Instead of showing the presumably painstaking process by which she gradually won over many Americans to her side, we are treated to one press conference where, after a couple of false starts (accentuated by some of the most hilariously awful ADR dialogue heard outside of a Japanese monster movie), she instantly wins over the hostile crowd and a meeting with President Grover Cleveland where she pleads her case in a manner that, for the sake of the histories of all involved, I will pray was invented entirely by the filmmakers. Instead of illustrating how Kaiulani’s best efforts weren’t enough to stem the tide of American imperialism, the film ends on a brief moment of triumph and then throws up a bunch of title cards briefly explaining that everything fell apart immediately and that our heroine died less than a year later, supposedly of “a broken heart.” The whole film is like the cinematic equivalent of someone being asked to write a long essay on the causes behind the Civil War and answering with nothing more than “Slavery”

“Princess Kaiulani” is essentially an expensive version of those dull films that teachers used to show in class when they didn’t feel like dealing with students--it isn’t especially offensive or controversial but it never challenges viewers or demonstrates enough in its subject to inspire them to delve further into the subject. The best thing about it is the lovely and striking scenery of the Hawaiian islands and the interiors of the real-life Iolani Palace but face it, even the worst filmmaker imaginable would be hard-pressed to shoot such scenery and come back with something not worth looking at. Then there is the lovely and striking scenery provided by Q’Orianka Kilcher in her first screen appearance since her memorable appearance as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s “The New World”--in fact, the whole thing feels like what it must be like to see a Terrence Malick film through the eyes of one of his detractors. Once again, she proves herself to be an incredibly compelling screen presence--with her unique beauty and obvious charisma, she commands attention just standing there and not saying a word. Alas, she eventually has to open her mouth and as the film progresses, it becomes more and more obvious why Malick chose to use her more or less as an ethereal presence and left the dialogue to others.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20428&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/21/10 01:00:00
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User Comments

1/22/11 Beverley M Sporck This film left me wanted to learn more about this part of American and Hawaiian history. 4 stars
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  14-May-2010 (PG)
  DVD: 14-Sep-2010


  DVD: 14-Sep-2010

Directed by
  Marc Forby

Written by
  Marc Forby

  Q’Orianka Kilcher
  Barry Pepper
  Shaun Evans
  Will Patton
  Jimmy Yuill

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