A small confession: I’ve never been a great fan of biopics. Oh, I ‘m enthralled with the idea of such stories, it’s the execution that’s so often disappointing. All too frequently, we get a simplistic hagiograph of an individual who may have been frighteningly complex, but we’re spared the warts, manipulated by goody-goody heroics and a rousing score. If it’s usually better to read the novel a particular film is based on, then the mandate is even stronger regarding biographies.
As a long-term student of Hawaiian history – I had planned to escape to those islands in the mid-‘90s – I was no stranger to the tale of Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian queen, deposed by American skullduggery during the US’ first stirrings of imperialist expansion following the Spanish-American War. I’d heard nothing of her niece, Victoria Ka’iulani, a headstrong young woman who was heir to her aunt’s throne, but of course, history would deny her a royal court.
British director Marc Forby’s historical drama, Princess Ka’iulani, now out on DVD, attempts to tell the story of this lost queen, but mostly spins an overtly romanticized yarn that fudges several important details, content to sweep us off our feet with a storybook representation of the princess.
In 1889 Hawaii, the formerly-named Sandwich Islands was held in an ever-tightening vise grip of colonial influences, administered by Great Britain and its upstart progeny, the United States. Still, the Hawaiian Kingdom remained intact, and Forby’s early scenes seem to impart a tropical republic that’s equal parts high-born English classism and ancient Polynesian ritual. A servant boy, somewhat duskier than the Hawaiian Royal family engages the princess in close conversation, only to be sternly admonished by one of her male relatives, reminding those of us that blindly exult traditional indigenous societies that they were seldom egalitarian ‘paradises’, but instead, guided by strict codes of social behavior, sometimes more unforgiving than those of their conquerors.
When Ka’iulani is later shipped to England for a proper Victorian education, I began to see parallels between her life and that of Pocahontas, an earlier expatriate to the British Isles, whose relocation had tragic consequences. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Q’orianka Kilcher—herself raised in Hawaii—plays Ka’iulani; film buffs will recall her turn as Powhatan’s daughter in Terence Malick’s lush dreamscape The New World. Kilcher may be the new “It” girl to portray the earthy yet regal seductresses, exuding girlish charm and lusty sensuality, a bewitching sire to would-be conquistadors.
Her Ka’iulani certainly has a field day with petulant anger. She has no desire to be in damp, chilly England, and examining her new caretakers, complains, “They’re not of royal blood”, seeming all the while like a teenage girl forced to play with a bratty kid brother.
Our Haughtiness has met her match, however, in these new surroundings. A cruel headmistress at her boarding school, the curiously angelic-looking Mrs. Barnes, has it in for her, and Clive (Shaun Evans, channeling Hugh Grant, it seems), the son of her new guardian, sniffs, “She’s just some princess of nowhere,” in response to her curt dismissal of his family. How much you wanna bet they don’t fall head over heels?
In fact, it saddens me to know that a real-life romance between Davies and Ka’iulani never existed, because the tender scenes between Kilcher and Evans are among the best in the film, though their deepening relationship is utterly predictable. When love blooms between them, a sequence in which Clive removes Ka’iulani’s boot carries a faintly erotic charge, a slight loosening of the public barriers the Victorians erected between the genders. Did he touch the princess? Why, yes, indeed! Later, Clive proposes to her partly in Hawaiian, a sweetly submissive act of love from a man well-schooled in the superiority of England’s then-rapacious culture of Empire.
Meanwhile, the dispossession of Ka’iulani’s people goes into overdrive, as scheming American plutocrats, led by the militaristic Lorrin Thurston (Barry Pepper), decide to divvy up the palm tree pie. To keep Ka’iulani in England, her father’s close friend Theophilus Davies (Julian Glover) shreds any letters her father has sent from Hawaii, so she’s in the darK about the political shenanigans. Her British education even entails using her Christian name, Cleghorne, a legacy from Dad, a Scotch businessman who settled in the islands.
However, British influence is clearly on the wane in Hawaii, as American dominion expands, and the protective intransigence of Queen Liliuokalani has angered powerful corporate interests. Despite her blossoming relationship with Clive, Ka’iulani flees England for Hawaii in an attempt to restore the monarchy, which the US government successfully overthrows in 1893. She delivers an impassioned speech to the press – Kilcher looking simultaneously regal and delicate in this scene – and lunches with President Cleveland, but to little avail. The ‘victory’ she scores proves bittersweet, all the more so when she dies soon after, allegedly from a broken heart.
How tragically Greek that sounds, like a fable catalogued in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Truth is, Princess Ka’iulani ‘s health was on the decline years before her death in March 1899, at a mere 23 years of age. It’s likely that the English climate and environment – so radically different from her native land’s – brought about a weakening of her immune system, a problem not solved by her return to Hawaii.
Her life begins to resemble Pocahontas even more, for that earlier expatriate who decamped to British shores also went to her grave at an untimely age. In dramatic terms, one could say that the removal of a lovely, delicate flower from its natural ecosystem can only result in the wilting and eventual death of the plant, and Princess Ka’iulani would certainly have benefited from exploring such poetic terrain, but Forby’s film doesn’t catch this, and it occurs to me that Caroll Ballard might have.
Of course, there’s the issue of the fair-haired Clive Davies. In actuality, Ka’iulani was pressured – by her aunt – to marry any of three prominent men, two Hawaiian royals and a Japanese prince, but her agreement to wed Prince David Kawananakoa was terminated when she died. No clear evidence of a betrothal to Davies exists in the princess’ official history, and maybe artistic license has simply run amok here.
Extras are less than copious, but the first offering, Ka’iulani: Crown Princess of Hawaii is essential viewing, for it provides an unwitting rebuke to the factual liberties the film takes. The Hawaiian people of that era – or today, for that matter – did not think homogeneously, and the young Ka’iulani was tended by white governesses, a la Mary Poppins, who apparently kept any opinion regarding ‘barbarian natives’ to themselves.
The princess also kept pet peacocks on the family estate, earning the nickname the “Peacock Princess”, although long-time friend and Polynesiaphile Robert Louis Stevenson preferred to call her his “island rose”. Furthermore, though most cite the armed overthrow of 1893 as the moment of doom for the Kingdom of Hawaii, in truth the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 effectively dispossessed the natives, laying the groundwork for American hegemony. History geek that I am, I ate up all these fascinating tidbits, but they ultimately lessened the film in my mind.
Of course, there’s the requisite behind-the-scenes doc, in which Forby discusses how he first learned of Ka’iulani during a pleasure trip to the islands. Kilcher flashes her amazing dentifrice, bracketed by full-bodied lips, and Shaun Evans reveals his near-Cockney(!) brogue. An attempt is made to equate the takeover of Hawaii with America’s grand misadventure in Iraq, but, but the connections are lost on me. Also, we’re told that 1890s Hawaii was a surprisingly progressive society, with an astounding literacy rate, and numerous mod cons thought to be the exclusive province of industrialized powers, but it’s likely that colonialism enabled such advances, and a royal elite seems alien to the concept of modernism, at any rate.
In one early sequence, electric lights are switched on for the first time in a grand ceremony at Honolulu’s Iolani Palace, and they’re meant to symbolize the arrival of civilized creature comforts in a “barbarian” paradise. Ironically, the imposition of Western industrial accoutrements to Polynesia ultimately spells doom for the local populace. However grand the Hawaiian kingdom, they’ve encountered a stronger one.
The story of Victoria Ka’iulani, a budding feminist during a propitious era for women, is a decidedly more complex one than this film essays, replete with racism, class resentments, tragic illness, pre-arranged marriages, even a childhood friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson. The film needs a wider canvas – dare I say a more generous budget? – than the reported $9 million granted to Forby. Certainly, a longer running time would have given Forby more space, and I’m left to speculate what was left on the cutting-room floor. Alas, the economics of the film business today are such that a biographical movie of a figure most are unaware of would never receive the proper resources or attention to detail.
Princess Ka’iulani is hardly without merit—it has gorgeous cinematography and compelling performances. It nabbed an Audience Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival, but that’s probably not saying much. Its, conventional, by-the-dots cinematic treatment here only proves that time-honored maxim: Truth is better than fiction.