A few years back, Keisha Castle-Hughes made quite a splash in Whale Rider, a visually and dramatically stunning picture that communicates messages of preserving nature and heritage. Then, in her second lead performance, she took on the role of Mary in The Nativity Story, Catherine Hardwicke's lackluster depiction of the birth of Jesus. Oddly, we're seeing a bit of déjà vu in Q'orianka Kilcher; after stunning audiences in Terrence Malick's breathtaking The New World, where Kilcher played Pocahontas, she finds herself in the midst of the similarly-themed biopic Princess Kaiulani for her second large role. Under Marc Forby's direction, it ends up being an arid, featureless account of an interesting historical figure, swallowing up a fine-but-suffering performance from Kilcher in the process.
Shot with a Merchant Ivory-esque luster by action-film cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, Princess Kaiulani's story is also a recount of Hawaii at the time of its annex to the United States, though it seems Forby's film tinkers with the historical progression that swelled around the government's overthrow. Here, the focus falls on both the Princess' budding personal life and her perceptive political edge, starting with the volatile Lorrin Thurston (Barry Pepper)-led overthrow of the Hawaiian government amid the Bayonet Constitution and carrying over into her American-based campaign to overturn the takeover. But it also stirs around her somewhat tortured personal life in-between after her Scottish father (Jimmy Yuill) sends her off to the UK for safety's sake, including racist ridicule under their care and her eventual romance with Brit Clive Davies (Shaun Evans).
A clear partition forms in Princess Kaiulani's material that separates her personal and political affairs, yet Marc Forby's poorly-paced direction handles neither side with enough magnetism to make it into a gripping account. Maudlin romance with Clive and weepy, false melodrama in her segregation alter what could've been a story of inspiration into more of a hassle due to its inauthentic feel, stunting the growth of the seeds planted during her time in England that will, later, transform her into a shrewd, driven speaker. Her courtship with Clive occurs quickly and without much preparation for their connection, dripping in droplets of flirtation between them in her time in England then, hastily, force-feeding us their chemistry-free romance -- and her stature as a "barbarian" princess.
When Princess Kaiulani shifts over into the political spectrum, revolving around her time in America and her return to Hawaii to fight for the rights of her people, we're so bogged down by its meandering melodrama that the historical aspects -- the real reason for watching -- become subdued. That's unfortunate, since these sequences, such as Kaiulani meeting with president Grover Cleveland and her taking a stand for the Hawaii people's voting right amid a state dinner, pick up the pace and emphasize some of the film's meatier performances. That includes a testy, fickle turn from Barry Pepper as Thurston, who's almost unrecognizable underneath his dapper moustache and puckish carriage, though it nearly gets lost in his pumped up villainy.
Instead of giving Princess Kaiulani a bit of thrust behind her performance, Q'orianka Kilcher instead collapses into the capricious flow of the picture without much of a commanding presence. Sure, she's always in the line-of-sight as she evolves from an unrefined girl into a poised, sharp-tongued presence in the political arena fighting for her country, while her eloquent speeches showcase awareness for subtle emotion through facial mannerisms and body language. But it's not vibrant enough to spruce up the low-key, tiresome demeanor that Marc Forby's creates with his middling historical account, one that shackles any poignancy that it could've generated through a soupy, soapy swirl of melodramatic bluntness and toothless exertion.
Video and Audio:
Princess Kaiulani arrives from Lionsgate in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that's suitable, but a bit erratic. Some of the idyllic location shots can be rather attractive, reflecting on sun-baked yellows in the sand and the lush turquoise blues of the water and sky, while a few exterior shots support supple skin tones and a great grasp on shadow detail. Other scenes, mostly the shots involving plant-life outside, showcase the disc's spastic concentration on detail and proneness to blocking. Gabriel Beristain's photography comes across as harsh, noisy, and somewhat washed out in regards to contrast on a fair number of occasions, presenting some rather pink skin tones in a few of the Anglo-Saxon folk and an overextended orange tint to a few of the shots -- though this saturation might possibly be the artistic intent of these sequences. The disc supports the content well enough, but not without some reservations.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn't exactly a satisfying experience, either, aside from the scoring. Graceful piano notes fill the sound design at many points, reaching to the rear channels to a pleasing frequency that gives the design a sense of weight. That's good, because the dialogue suffers from extremely constriction to the center-channel, frequently sounding metallic and choked. Since Princess Kaiulani thrives on its dialogue, it intermittently cripples the experience in watching the film, which doesn't match well against the middle-of-the-road visuals. A Dolby 2.0 Stereo track has also been tossed onto the disc, while optional English and Spanish subtitles can be viewed with the film.
A Commentary with Director Marc Forby highlights the supplements, where he discusses bringing Kaiulani's story to a mainstream audience, some of the embellishments he made for the sake of cinematic flare, and the beauty behind some of the shooting locations and production constructions (such as the beautiful gazebo shot in the middle of the film). He clearly has affection for the story and a desire to inform folks about the character, though he himself drags in momentum while he discusses his film. He brightens up a bit in his interview time within the Behind the Scenes (25:11, 16x9) bit, which follows a standard Point-A-to-Point-B flow in describing the assembly of the picture as it wedges in a few bursts of raw footage. Interestingly, Lionsgate have also included a retrospective on Kaiulani entitled Kaiulani: The Crown Princess of Hawaii (34:31, 16x9). In this, the story of Kaiulani is told with scenes from the movie inserted into relevant sequences, working as a pretty effective docu-drama as it explores some of the details glossed over in the film. Finally a Theatrical Trailer (2:32, 16x9) rounds things out.
Q'orianka Kilcher's anticipated sophomore effort finds her in a slump with Marc Forby's Princess Kaiulani, which blandly circles around the historical figure's private life enough to water down the depiction of her gallant successes later down the line. It takes quite a while for the pace to pick up and for the film to extend beyond ham-fisted emotion -- generated within Kaiulani's romantic and browbeaten early years -- and, when it does, the moderate dramatic successes in the final acts aren't enough to pull the picture out of its fog. Kilcher possesses a wealth of talent in her poetic, stoic emotion, that's a sure fact, but it's not out in enough force here to give this compelling true story the thrust it needs to be great. Rent It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site