Princess Kaiulani (2009)

   Rating: 4 out of 5
Rated: PG
Reviewer: Rissi C.
Lost among the blockbusters, I had sort of forgotten about this until another movie re-introduced it as a “preview” before the feature. Although perhaps not up to par with some of its peers, if nothing else, this is a breathtaking film by its own rights.
Knowing from a young age that she may be the only heir to her family’s throne, young Kaiulani spent many a happy time with her mother -- making those memories along Hawaii’s shores and collecting the seashells to accompany those moments. Her uncle is king, and their family is at peace where nothing seems amiss… until her mother dies. Grieving during the better part of her growing up years, Kaiulani (Q’orianka Kilcher) becomes a protected royal amidst her uncle’s reign, comforted by her aunt and barely acquainted with her Scottish father (Jimmy Yuill). During her first royal act in a lighting ceremony, a distinguished American member, Mr. Thurston (Barry Pepper) of the kings’ council raids the banquet with fellow Americans won to his side in an effort to control the king. Fearing her safety, Kaiulani’s father removes her and places her in England with the Davies’ family, whom he trusts. With two children of their own – Clive (Shaun Evens) and Alice (Tamzin Merchant), the Davies’ enroll Kaiulani at their daughter’s school and she becomes “Victoria,” one part of her name given to her in honor of Britain’s queen. Although she rebels against everything “proper,” is ridiculed and hates just the idea of being in England, two years pass, and Victoria adjusts to her new life, even finding a joyful happiness with her host family. Feeling abandoned by her father who simply left her, it’s in those years that news of the king's death reaches Victoria and while gripped with sadness, her life continues. In those years, news of her native land is kept from her… even while she falls in love and accepts a marriage proposal. Little does Victoria know the unrest and changes her country is abiding as America lobbies to make Hawaii a part of their colonization -- civilized territory.
Trailers can be instrumental in one of two ways for any movie or genre: they can be thought too “spoiler crazy” in which basically, the whole story is summed up in less than three minutes and they can “answer” what sort of outcome a story will have, all without literally showing its audience the ending. This film is in the latter’s situation. Upon seeing the trailer, I knew just how the film would go; it was bound to follow tradition. While I wasn’t surprised in the outcome of this screenplay, based off a figure in past history, pleasantly, I was surprised that this wasn’t nearly as dull or slow-moving as you’d imagine. Before ten minutes have passed, Kauilani is already whisked away from danger in Hawaii -- expressive would be the best way to describe this drama. Kilcher received her first big break in 2005’s New World as a young teenager, a story that much to my chagrin unfolded in a very tedious manner thanks to the fact that it had little dialogue. While this is much different (the first twenty minutes had more speaking than the entire aforementioned legend did!), Kaiulani remains much more observant than forcefully verbal, instead of constantly shouting to display her displeasure (and she does have some outbursts). Although sometimes you want to scream at her “say something!” Kilcher acts with body language and facial expressions, allowing the audience to “feel” more of her displeasure, pain and sadness. Casting virtual unknowns makes for a gamble, but when something such as this is made into a big-screen adaptation, that is generally how things work because this wasn’t a strongly promoted or well-funded. Everyone delivers solid performances and having just finished watching The Tudors, it was entertaining to see Tamzin Merchant in something different, no matter how small her role.
All the people Kaiulani comes into contact with during her stay in England seemed sort of tacked on because the relationships aren’t as traditionally developed enough to feel genuine. It was almost as if screenwriters didn’t quite know what to do with the Davies’ family. That being said, I don’t wish to sound down on the first half of the movie, especially when those moments are innocently and beautifully filmed; reminiscent of a young trio’s time of growing up during such uncomplicated circumstances. The one thing that writer’s did mange well is Alice and Victoria’s friendship: they giggle, whisper and share dreams during their handful of scenes together, just as a prolonged montage on the beach captures a lovely essence for the audience. As such, Tamzin gives a sweet portrayal of a girl whose family took in a stranger and only wanting to befriend this foreign princess, Alice makes every kind attempt to help her properly adjust. Knowing little about Hawaii’s royalty or the time surrounding it becoming a state, I did recognize this woman as having been a Princess beforehand because I remembered a fictional series based on historic persons I used to enjoy including her as one of the authors’ subjects. Whether or not this is wholly accurate, there are some fascinating bits of history woven into the rest of the story. War breaks out on Hawaii’s shores as Americans try to overpower it; native’s are unprepared and are said to have unknowingly walked into an inevitable end.
Men are seen being shot one right after another in an attempt to take back their lands, although it isn’t graphic. Kaiulani has a temper and talks back to her absent father, claiming he has no right to tell her anything after “abandoning” her; he slaps her across the face on one occasion. One young couple share several kisses. And there is a single use of he**. There are some beautiful reasons to see this -- the two most important to any costume drama. The costumes are exquisite! They compliment the actors and my only disappointment was that we weren’t allowed to see the ballroom of the one party the Davies’ attended. The designers did a lovely job of making Kaiulani up as the perfect lady as her education became more pronounced. The backdrops and natural scenery are just as lovely, making this one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen. Even though I wouldn’t say I disliked the story, there are disadvantages and stronger points. The romance is underplayed, making the premise of choosing between heart and country rather irrelevant and silly, along with some added confusion when Hawaiian dialect acts as a voice-over during letters or narration plays a part in beginning and ending the story. But other aspects far outshine these problems, giving the film more potential than it allowed itself. While I won’t say that I’ll never give this the occasional rental, it is unlikely that it will end up in my “library,” either.