Princess Kaiulani

“You looked visibly stressed, not halfway through it,” says my movie-going accomplice (modestly anonymous, I’ll call him “Mr. M”). Hearing this, my shoulders slump further. I’d exhausted myself for most of the movie, trying to mask my discomfort. Apparently it didn’t work. 

I’d gone from desperately wanting (hoping, praying) to enjoy myself to stifling my scoffs so as not to be the asshole in the theater. Post show, my peanut gallery politeness didn’t last to the exit. All the way to the parking lot, my gasped complaints fell uninterrupted on Mr. M’s patient, insightful ears.

Princess Ka’iulani has many fatal flaws. But the biggest disservice it does is sidelining the monarch’s role in Hawaii’s overthrow for a soulless smooch fest—relegating our most enigmatic royal to a too-proud priss who engages in nothing but 130 minutes of B-roll barf.

For all the story’s potential and my enthusiastic interest, I left the theater trying to calculate how much time the film wasted on bizarre beach romps; I could have driven to Kula in the collective minutes. Otherwise, time is spent watching a confusingly represented Ka’iulani (Q’orianka Kilcher) sulk with her bag of shells or suck face with that ugly, do-nothing Brit, Clive Davies (Shaun Evans). It is not the story of the tragic heroine I came to see. But at least I know the truth. For many outside our islands, this will be a first impression of Hawaiian history. And that’s the real tragedy. 

For all the dough it has reaped while homogenizing our culture, Hollywood has yet to give na kanaka anything we can be proud of. So I should know better than to get my hopes up. But when it’s a biopic about such a widely loved and historically significant ali’i as Ka’iulani, I can’t help but dream of, at least, a little red-carpet worthy cinematography. Pocahontas in The New World—Kilcher’s last princess portrayal (alongside Colin Farrell as John Smith)—got at least that, with direction by The Thin Red Line’s Terrence Malick.

But with first-time writer/director Marc Forby at the helm of Princess Ka’iulani, the legacy of Hawaii’s last princess—and the overthrow at large—is not afforded even the glitz of a big-budget production. Shortcomings boil down to a lid-heavy pace, while Ka’iulani’s real story and the rapid-fire timeline of Hawaii’s overthrow should be the stuff of silver-screen gold.

Handed a history unknown to most of the world and one that inherently lends itself to hair-trigger drama, Forby finds a way to muck it all up—with poor filmmaking, yes, but worse still with inaccurate, unnecessary historical revisionism. In this case especially, “based on a true story,” should be prefaced with “loosely.” Ka’iulani’s famed lament, “I must have been born under an unlucky star,” (absent from the film) seems a curse that’s betrayed her even in cinema a century later.

When its early release dawned late last year, the movie’s original title, Barbarian Princess, stirred up controversy. It meant to play off of political cartoons and headlines of the day pitted against the princess—the result of shoddy journalism that spread from San Francisco to New York, stoked by the smear campaigning of late-19th century Annexationists.

The din of opposition resulted in a name change, but I for one liked the provocative title. The relevance, of course, being the fact that real-life Ka’iulani’s poise instantly charmed the apologetic press upon her landing on U.S. soil, as she steeled herself to make impassioned petition of President Grover Cleveland for the sustained sovereignty of Hawaii.

Instead, the film gives us a single, paraphrased speech, from an Oriental Trading Co. soundstage, set to laughable sound bites of jeering journos who come around quickly thanks to Michael W. Perry of now-pau Hawaiian Moving Co. fame (hearing his familiar, iconic voice was a rare bright spot).

Though it can sometimes be written off to the filmmakers trying to sex up the story, the casting befuddles—often. Easiest to jab is Evans as Clive the love interest. This should be a story about love of country; instead it’s about love of a boy. And, might I say, not a very attractive one at that. 

“I know it’s a tall order for the English,” jokes Mr. M, of Evans being the cutest they could cast. He gets a grin out of me. My only other smile came during the film’s lone clever moment, a short scene depicting annexation ceremonies. The royal band is made to play “The Star Spangled Banner,” and their sloppy rendition gets a cocked brow from Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile) as bad-guy Lorrin A. Thurston.

The film’s other big name is Will Patton as Sanford B. Dole. But Patton’s portrayal—script first to blame—softens Dole and makes him into a sympathizer to the Hawaiian monarchy, when Liliuokalani’s own memoirs staunchly state otherwise.

I waited to finish writing my own review before reading others. I’m glad I did. Once again, from coast to coast, the journalistic opinion of Ka’iulani is a harsh one—only this time it’s justified. That, to me, is more painful than the movie, as each review’s synopsis proves the damage Princess Ka’iulani has done both to the Princess’s legacy and an increased understanding of Hawaiian culture.

“For the uninitiated, they’ve confused things all the more,” says Mr. M succinctly. Scarier still, this is the kind of crap you’ll soon find buried in a $5 DVD bin at a Walmart in the Midwest, forever warping unsuspecting minds.

Where Forby failed to tell the truth, he also failed to uphold the legend. There’s enough myth to Ka’iulani to add a little cinematic flair. Hello? What about the lone horseback ride through a Big Island storm, the one that caused her lethal cold? Or wailing pet peacocks, precisely at the moment of her death, so insatiable they were ordered shot? Instead, the film makes it seem like she takes a suicide walk into the ocean. (She might not have, but I sure felt like it.)

Hawaiian mythology is drenched in the mist of things eerie and supernatural. As Hollywood has so well shown, when you’re trying to make money off a locale’s sunny ideal, that kind of thing is unfashionable. So for the better part of a century we’ve allowed the intrigue of our proud, strange tales to become dehydrated with grass skirts and plastic tikis. Now comes the final insult: Princess Ka’iulani—our patriot princess, the woman who Robert Louis Stevenson dubbed the “Island Rose”—is withered to nothing more than the pale impression of a pressed flower.