Opinions on ‘Princess Ka‘iulani’ (2009)

I had hoped that the film ‘Princess Ka‘iulani’ (2009) would be good. The story of Hawaii’s fight against the United States’ attempts to subjugate it, set against the life of the last heiress to its crown, could have been an excellent movie. I was disappointed, however. Somehow this movie fails to connect its characters and make us interested in them. The story itself is disjointed. Too much time is spent in nothing — in girls playing around hanging laundry with no dialogue and the like. In one scene, three of the characters are shown on the beach — there is absolutely no dialogue, nothing occurs besides them walking and dancing around, and the scene lasts for a full one minute and fifty seconds. Like these scenes, there is an emptiness to this film — a lack of development or purpose. Instead it was filled with a vapid, shallow, sugary romance and a half-hearted attempt to dramatize Hawaii’s struggle for independence.

There was no character development. Ka‘iulani is portrayed as a pampered brat at the beginning, and such she continues. Her concern for her people sits uneasily on her otherwise rather self-centered character. At the beginning, when her father forces her to leave Hawaii, she is shown flinging herself around and screaming. She tells him that she wishes he had died instead of her mother. Later on, after an absence of two years, her father returns to her, objecting to her proposed engagement. Again, she flings herself about, screams, and tells him that he has no right to tell her what to do. She is the same girl as she was at the beginning.

Ka‘iulani’s love interest, Clive Davies, is said to be rather a dandy, but no time is given to portraying this. His change of opinion about Ka‘iulani (he doesn’t like her when he first meets her), is not shown — the film simply jumps to him being romantically interested in her. Neither of them is shown any reason to think better of the other than they did at the beginning of their acquaintance. Their romance is soppy and shallow, being portrayed in little other than the two kissing each other … and kissing each other … and kissing each other. We never see what it is that drew the two together. When Clive declares his love to Ka‘iulani, he tells her, “You have no idea, do you? The hell it’s been living with you. Seeing you every day, the way you smile. Your laugh, your perfume.” It is true, she does giggle a lot, but that is, apparently, the only reason he loves her. Neither of them is willing to sacrifice for the other in order to be with each other. Clive does tell Ka‘iulani several times that he is willing to follow her to Hawaii, but in the end he is not willing to do so. Nor is she willing to follow him. Since neither is prepared to give up for the other, their romance is weak, and it is difficult to feel any sympathy for them and their difficulties. When, at the end, Ka‘iulani gives Clive up to stay in Hawaii, it is difficult to feel any sorrow for either of them.

The movie hammers in that Ka‘iulani is beautiful. Her beauty is a focal point. Alice tells her brother Clive, “She’s pretty”, as soon as they have met, as a reason for liking her. Before going to a ball, Alice tells Ka‘iulani, “You’ll be the most beautiful girl at the party, easily.” At the ball, the hostess asks her husband about Ka‘iulani, “Do you think she’s attractive?” To which he replies, “In a jungle tigress sort of way, I suppose.” When Ka‘iulani arrives in the United States, the crowd there greets her advent admiringly with, “She’s pretty”, “Undeniably”, and “She’s beautiful.” When she meets with the first lady, Mrs. Cleveland, she is told, “Your name is beautiful. And so are you, my dear. Much fairer in person than in the papers.” Even her enemy, Mr. Thurston, introduces her as “the lovely Princess Ka‘iulani.” Whether or not you think the actress who portrays Ka‘iulani — Q’orianka Kilcher — is beautiful or not, is a matter of taste. In my opinion, however, it would have been better to develop Ka‘iulani’s character instead of spending so much time trying to convince us that she is beautiful.

The movie tries to portray her as refined. Unfortunately, it only tells, it doesn’t show. When Ka‘iulani arrives in the United States, she tells the crowd there that “One would not call on a gentleman with whom they are not acquainted informally. And I do not believe that the public station of President Cleveland makes a difference.” We must be told this because none of Ka‘iulani’s behavior beforehand would suggest her to be so scrupulous. The focus on telling us of Ka‘iulani’s beauty and refinement seems to be meant as a contrast to those who consider her a “barbarian princess”. Miss Barnes tells Ka‘iulani, “We’ll make a respectable lady of you, away from the barbarian place from which you’ve come.” At a ball, the host asks Ka‘iulani, “Do you read and write?” When she arrives in the United States, Ka‘iulani can hear the crowd speculating about her. “Think she’ll be barefoot?” “More than likely.” Unfortunately, we are shown more of her temper and irritability than her good-breeding and must take the latter on trust for the most part.

The historical parts of the film, while stronger than the rest, are disconnected — they don’t flow with the rest of the movie. Told through letters mostly, those parts provide a contrast with Ka‘iulani’s happy time with the Davies family, but not enough is shown. What should have been a focal point, simply becomes a distraction until towards the end when Ka‘iulani decides to return to help her country. Because of this, as with the love story, it is difficult to feel the appropriate sympathy.

Motifs are scattered disjointedly throughout the movie. There is the shell theme. Princess Ka‘iulani collects “ola shells”, or “life shells”. From time to time she is seen looking at these shells. At the beginning she collects some with her mother. Later, she explains to Alice Davies how you are supposed to attach memories to these shells, “so you don’t ever forget.” She has a shell for the first time she kissed Clive, and later, in Hawaii, she chooses one for “The night my country disappeared.” The last scene with Ka‘iulani shows her dumping the shells back into the ocean. Early in the film, the young Ka‘iulani meets a set of Hawaiian twin boys. They become a sort of motif, symbolic of Ka‘iulani’s interest in her homeland. Every so often, one or other of the twins is shown.

And then there is Miss Barnes, who drops into the scene when Ka‘iulani goes to school, apparently for the sole purpose of being mean to her, demanding that Ka‘iulani not expect royal privileges but do the washing, empty her chamber pot, and make her bed. She proceeds to rip up a letter to Ka‘iulani from one of the twins, and then drops back out of the picture. She again pops into the movie, this time apparently for the sole purpose of showing Ka‘iulani’s magnanimity. In this role, I suppose, she is quite useful, as none of Ka‘iulani’s other behavior shows her to be magnanimous. Ka‘iulani and Alice are sitting together when the former Miss Barnes (she is now the recently widowed Mrs. Connolly), very wet and humbled and looking for work as a seamstress, shows up. Ka‘iulani demands that towels be brought — quickly. In case you didn’t get it, Alice pipes up, “But she was so…” before Ka‘iulani regally quiets her and offers to take Mrs. Connolly’s wet cloak. The presence of these motifs leaves a feeling of loose ends, as none of them are tied together, or have any obvious conclusion. (Except, perhaps, the shell theme, but even that seemed just pasted onto the rest of the movie with no relationship to anything.)

In the end, this movie acted as if it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a history, a romance, or the story of an individual. It is possible to join all of these successfully, but this movie failed to do so. It started with a great story, but was chopped up and watered down to the point that it failed to leave any great impression. It ends with the melodramatic comment that some believe Princess Ka‘iulani died of a broken heart. The movie fails to show a Ka‘iulani that was that passionate in her cause. She begins with a love for Hawaii because it is her home. She leaves and is happy away. Trouble calls her home, but she fails to convince us that her country is her life.


Screencaps from the trailer of ‘Princess Ka‘iulani’ (2009) by ladybluelake.

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