Ka’iulani: Princess of sorrow and grace 

A slow-moving, beautifully made, uneven movie, “Princess Ka’iulani” seems to have come out of the blue. There was no advance publicity, no industry buzz, only a controversy at the Hawaii world premiere last year over the film’s original name, “Barbarian Princess.”

Since this doesn’t bode well for a long run, my recommendation is to see it as soon as possible.

It’s not a documentary, although it deals with history. Writer-director Marc Forby deliberately, admirably stays away from the annoying didactic explanations that so often ruin similar movies.

Here’s a minimalistic background note: American and English missionaries and businessmen living in and off the riches of the kingdom of Hawaii in the late 19th century organized an armed coup and prevailed on Washington to annex the Islands. The royal family and the nobility were pushed aside, Queen Liliu’okalani was imprisoned.

The young crown princess Victoria Ka’iulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn was educated in England, became a symbol of the oppressed nation, and lobbied American presidents in person on behalf of her people with some success — such as extending voting rights to all Hawaiians.

Only a couple of historic notes are projected at the end of the movie, one about the 1993 U.S. apology for the 1893 overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii, the other a veritable kick in the stomach: Ka’iulani died in 1899, at age 23.

You mourn the princess not only because of her cruel fate and that of her country, but more personally because of the magnificent way Q’orianka Kilcher portrays her on the screen.

Instead of being ironic, it’s deeply meaningful that a German-born Peruvian-Swiss actress whose mother was raised in Alaska creates a Hawaiian princess that’s so real, riveting and believable.

From age 2 to 9, Kilcher, who was already performing, lived in Hawaii. She later exhibited her all-purpose, cross-cultural magic as the memorable Pocahontas in 2005’s otherwise unremarkable “The New World.”

With a strangely captivating face and an unprepossessing talent for living in the role, Q’orianka (“golden eagle” in the language of the Inca) makes the film come alive every time she is on screen, which is most of the time.

When she is out of the picture, there are tentative scenes of power struggle in Hawaii or life in Victorian England, where obviously amateur extras come close to bringing the film’s quality down, and accentuate its unevenness.

Otherwise, there are fine performances — from Shaun Evans as Ka’iulani’s potential love interest and Will Patton as Sanford B. Dole (one of the few decent missionary-merchants who went to the Islands to do good and did well instead).

Barry Pepper’s evil Lorrin A. Thurston, along with many minor characters in Hawaii, England and Washington, is a poor caricature.


Princess Ka’iulani

Three stars

Starring Q’orianka Kilcher, Shaun Evans, Will Patton
Written and directed by Marc Forby
Rated PG
Running time 2 hours

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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