Marc Forby's 'Kaiulani' Bland, Even With Kilcher

Directed by: Marc Forby, Runtime: 130 minutes
Grade: C-

A few years back, Keisha Castle-Hughes made quite a splash in Whale Rider, a visually and dramatically stunning picture that communicates messages of preserving nature and heritage. Then, in her second lead performance, she took on the role of Mary in The Nativity Story, Catherine Hardwicke's lackluster depiction of the birth of Jesus. Oddly, we're seeing a bit of déjà vu in Q'orianka Kilcher; after stunning audiences in Terrence Malick's breathtaking The New World, where Kilcher played Pocahontas, she finds herself in the midst of the similarly-themed biopic Princess Kaiulani for her second large role. Under Marc Forby's direction, it ends up being an arid, featureless account of an interesting historical figure, swallowing up a fine-but-suffering performance from Kilcher in the process.

Shot with a Merchant Ivory-esque luster by action-film cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, Princess Kaiulani's story is also a recount of Hawaii at the time of its annex to the United States, though it seems Forby's film tinkers with the historical progression that swelled around the government's overthrow. Here, the focus falls on both the Princess' budding personal life and her perceptive political edge, starting with the volatile Lorrin Thurston (Barry Pepper)-led overthrow of the Hawaiian government amid the Bayonet Constitution and carrying over into her American-based campaign to overturn the takeover. But it also stirs around her somewhat tortured personal life in-between after her Scottish father (Jimmy Yuill) sends her off to the UK for safety's sake, including racist ridicule under their care and her eventual romance with Brit Clive Davies (Shaun Evans).

A clear partition forms in Princess Kaiulani's material that separates her personal and political affairs, yet Marc Forby's poorly-paced direction handles neither side with enough magnetism to make it into a gripping account. Maudlin romance with Clive and weepy, false melodrama in her segregation alter what could've been a story of inspiration into a hassle due to its inauthentic feel, stunting the growth of the seeds planted during her time in England that will, later, transform her into a shrewd, driven speaker. Her courtship with Clive occurs quickly and without much preparation for their connection, dripping in droplets of flirtation between them in her time in England then, hastily, force-feeding us their chemistry-free romance -- and her stature as a "barbarian" princess.

When Princess Kaiulani shifts over into the political spectrum, revolving around her time in America and her return to Hawaii to fight for the rights of her people, we're so bogged down by its meandering melodrama that the historical aspects -- the real reason for watching -- become subdued. That's unfortunate, since these sequences, such as Kaiulani meeting with president Grover Cleveland and her taking a stand for the Hawaii people's voting right amid a state dinner, pick up the pace and emphasize some of the film's meatier performances. That includes a testy, fickle turn from Barry Pepper as Thurston, who's almost unrecognizable underneath his dapper moustache and puckish carriage, though it nearly gets lost in his pumped up villainy.

Instead of giving Princess Kaiulani a bit of thrust behind her performance, Q'orianka Kilcher instead collapses into the capricious flow of the picture without much of a commanding presence. Sure, she's always in the line-of-sight as she evolves from an unrefined girl into a poised, sharp-tongued presence in the political arena fighting for her country, while her eloquent speeches showcase awareness for subtle emotion through facial mannerisms and body language. But it's not vibrant enough to spruce up the low-key, tiresome demeanor that Marc Forby's creates with his middling historical account, one that shackles any poignancy that it could've generated through a soupy, soapy swirl of melodramatic bluntness and toothless exertion.

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