Don’t be fooled by bookended images of people wading through tall sunlit grass and of light streaming through treetops, not to mention the performance of Q’orianka Kilcher as a native princess fighting to save her land from invading Westerners and temporarily relocating to Europe; despite these surface similarities, Princess Kaiulani is no The New World. In every respect in which Marc Forby’s film recalls Terrence Malick’s 2005 masterpiece, it compares unfavorably, recounting Hawaii’s annexation to the United States in the late 1800s with a systematic lack of nuance or depth. What you see is what you get, which in this case is a period piece that employs sub-Masterpiece Theater-ish aesthetics, including import-laden cinematography and emotive classical piano, to compensate for its insubstantiality.
After an attempted coup by a dastardly American (Barry Pepper, his villainy embodied by his curling mustache and giant mutton chops), princess Kaiulani (Kilcher) is sent by her Scottish father (Jimmy Yuill) to the U.K., where she suffers brazenly nasty racism and falls in love with English boy Clive (Clive Evans), who eventually destroys their romance by keeping from her news that the Hawaiian monarchy led by her aunt has been overthrown. This prompts Kaiulani to return home, where she singlehandedly wins universal suffrage for her marginalized people under their new American constitutional rule via a single dinner speech, a momentous triumph dramatized with the same clunky bluntness that typifies the proceedings as a whole.
In Forby’s hands, Kaiulani’s story amounts to almost nothing, given how one-dimensionally she’s characterized—aside from being noble and loyal to her nation and its people, Kaiulani is wholly devoid of human features—and how leaden the exposition-guided script copes with its historical tale. Every point of interest is either stated out loud or dealt with in groan-worthy visual symbolism, the most prominent being the seashells into which Kaiulani breathes her memories in order to forever preserve them. Whereas the film seeks grace and uplift in its heroine’s struggle to look after her homeland, it achieves merely TV movie-grade poignancy, all while proffering a portrait of tumultuous dawn-of-an-era events that’s free of insight, and a monotonous lead turn which suggests that Kilcher should branch out from colonized-indigenous-royalty roles.