TBT: Princess Kaiulani (2009)

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This fairly obscure movie from 2009 is very, very loosely based on the story of the last royal family of Hawaii and the heir to the throne, Princess Ka’iulani. There’s so much potential in the history to make a rich, fascinating movie because the last native rulers of the islands and the coup of American business interests that removed them from power deserves to be told. Sadly, this is not that movie.

On the good side, this film was made using some authentic locations like Iolani Palace in Honolulu (the only movie ever given permission to film there). The lead, Q’orianka Kilcher, is mesmerizing and could have done so much more with a stronger script. But it looks like the filmmakers tried to pretty up the story and Hollywood-ize the history — makes you wonder if that was under pressure or to try and sell the movie? It didn’t work. Some critics complain that the problem was “not enough native Hawaiians working on the project,” but I think I boils down to the old Hollywood playing fast and loose with history problem.

During filming, the director and screenwriter Marc Forby told the Honolulu press: “You have to understand the rest of the world isn’t necessarily going to spend $11 to learn about Hawaiian history …  So you have to draw them in with a compelling concept, and the mythology of a princess that dies at 23 is particularly compelling.” Some parts of the script seemed to have leaked out and drew criticism for a lack of historical accuracy, which Froby shrugged off with, “Events, times, places, those things don’t matter.” UGH. That makes me want to punch him. History IS interesting, and the events, times, and places, DO matter. This could have been a fantastic and historically accurate story without watering it down into a sappy, cliche romance like all the other crap churned out by Hollywood.

The costumes are as lackluster as the script. The characters are basically dressed in late Victorian outfits appropriate to the year and setting. But they aren’t anything special, and some closeups reveal cheap fabric choices. Plus, there’s a scene at the very end where Ka’iulani is walking around in a green ballgown but all the other women (white Americans, FWIW) are wearing shirtwaists, tailored skirts, and the like. Really? Just showing she’s a pretty pretty princess, I guess.

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

2 Responses

  1. Gena

    I agree on all counts– there were loads of historical changes made to this story (the movie was originally titled “Barbarian Princess,” and plot changes were to add the romantic subplot + make for something more palatable to mainlander audiences; Hawai’i was twice occupied by that point, and despite the movie casting Thurston as an opponent, Dole was no ally to the nation). It’s clear that so, so many of the performers had the heart to tell what really happened, and since this was never going to go up for an Oscar against other blockbuster level period films, I don’t think it would have cost them anything to bat for accuracy (and use some local consultants re: hair, fashions, etc.) rather than an outsider perspective on a storybook version.

    That said, the first dress pictured (Q’orianka wearing the white) is actually meant to be from a time when Ka’iulani was only around 12 years old. Besides wanting to maximize her screentime, I have no idea why a 19 year old would have been put in that position unless she’s meant to be aged up there– though it’s still a childish dress– but I think it also helps highlight her character development over the course of the entire movie when you realize she’s meant to have essentially gone through her adolescence during that time.

    Reply
    • Trystan

      Yes, it’s pretty sad that the filmmakers could have made a more historical story — you put it perfectly “it wouldn’t have cost them anything to bat for accuracy” on that count. And wouldn’t have cost them much in the way of audience either; I don’t recall the film getting a very wide theatrical distribution at the time. It certainly lives on more in Netflix & DVD, which is all the more revealing of the movie’s faults.

      Reply

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