What?? You’ve never even heard of the Hawaiian princess Victoria Kaʻiulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn? Well, frankly, neither had I. But she does have an interesting life story that is told – and acted- fairly well in this arty indie flick, though it takes a half-hour or so to really get into it. It’s a rather strange hybrid of a movie – part biopic, part epic romance, and part docudrama with some scenes that are reminiscent of those cheesy historical reenactments found in documentaries we all watched in grade school (or at the museum). It also features some gorgeous cinematography showcasing the natural beauty of Hawaii.
The film is based on the inspiring and ultimately tragic true story of Kaiulani, a half-Hawaiian, half-Scottish princess whose life and royal destiny is jeopardized by civil unrest in the island nation in the late 1800s. When a rebel party with links to the American government threatens to overthrow the monarchy, the 13-year-old princess is sent to live with friends of her father in Victorian England. There, she transforms into a strong yet compassionate woman with a deep-rooted sense of pride and duty toward her homeland. She also falls in love with a spirited young Englishman who doesn’t quite grasp the enormity of Kaiulani’s devotion to Hawaii. Princess Kaiulani embarks on a personal mission to defend her people against charges of barbarism and encourage the United States to let Hawaii remain a sovereign nation. And once annexation by the U.S. becomes a foregone conclusion, she fights to secure the right to vote for Hawaii’s natives (just the men, of course, since the U.S. was still a few decades away from granting women the right to vote!).
I’m no historian (and sadly, I’ve never been to Hawaii), so I can’t attest to the historical accuracy of the film. But it doesn’t claim to be a documentary, so you’ve got to cut it some slack in the dramatic license department. Without it, the movie might have teetered on boring. Instead, it’s a bit slow in parts but generally satisfying, at least for the art-house crowd.
Princess Kaiulani was originally titled Barbarian Princess. The term apparently rubbed some folks the wrong way, even though it was surely meant to be ironic – a slam to the ignorant western media that sought to portray native Hawaiians as barbarians. The princess comes across as anything but barbaric. She’s beautiful, well educated and passionate about preserving the rights and culture of her homeland and its native peoples. The film actually reminds me a bit of Whale Rider. It’s not quite the complete package that Whale Rider was, but it’s nice to see a ‘princess’ movie that wasn’t made by Disney and is actually based on a true story. Girls rule. ☺
Princess Kaiulani opens in limited release on May 14, 2010. For a list of cast and crew credits, click here.