A major problem with trying to make a romantic drama out of the history of Hawaii’s Princess Ka’iulani is that she died young, with relatively little chance for romance or drama. And while Princess Kaiulani makes do with what story it has, the film feels stretched and straining, full of sleepy scenes and pregnant pauses. It’s as though first-time writer-director Marc Forby is hoping that if he waits long enough, spontaneous action or bodice-ripping passion might suddenly break out, to cut through the staid tone.
The New World’s Q’orianka Kilcher stars as Victoria Ka’iulani Cleghorn, naïve teenage heir to the Hawaiian throne. In 1887, American opportunists—represented by chillingly distant, dramatically mustachioed Barry Pepper—overthrow the monarchy and disenfranchise most of the country’s citizens. Ka’iulani is forcibly relocated to England for safekeeping, education, and prissy condescension from people who type her as a Polynesian barbarian. But after enduring a few scenes of hatefulness from her fellow students, she acclimates and falls in love with her caretaker’s son (Shaun Evans). Further developments back home are hidden from her for much of the film, which highlights one of Princess Kaiulani’s biggest issues—the protagonist’s youth, gender, lack of information, and constricted choices prevent her from driving the action. A better film might have focused on exploring her personality and how these limitations affect it, but Forby’s script and direction (and Kilcher’s reserved, often mute portrayal) leave her as a charming blank. She gradually develops some spirit and a little agency, but hardly enough to carry the film.
Princess Kaiulani seems equally inspired by The New World’s sun-dappled scenes of chaste passion and popular monarch-in-transition films like The Last Emperor and Elizabeth, but it lacks Emperor’s pageantry and Elizabeth’s fire and force. Princess Ka’iulani’s greatest “victories” come through primly careful speeches that inspire a few key people, but ultimately accomplish little as American annexation becomes inevitable. Scenes string together haphazardly to make her story more fable-like—as when a bullying schoolmate abruptly returns to receive some telling kindness from the princess, then disappears again—but careful composition and a sweet romance can’t hide the story’s lack of depth or purpose. Even the presumed emotional fury of a country taken by force is muddled, romanticized, or tamed into civil costume-drama banality: There’s a strict limit to how much drama there can be in a film when the writer-director has characters express ultimate fury via a polite leave-taking.