TBT: Princess Caraboo (1994)


This gorgeous little flick, Princess Caraboo (1994), is one that I feel is often overlooked by those who love Regency Era films. Set in the early 19th century, the plot centers on a mysterious young woman who materializes on the property of local gentry, the Worrell family, clad in rags and speaking no discernible language. Her beauty and strange manners instantly captivate the townsfolk, and she is readily accepted into upper-crust society as a curiosity with potential access to riches in the Oriental spice trade. The imaginations of the townsfolk run wild, and it is almost immediately decided that she is Princess Caraboo, young noblewoman from Indonesia that had been captured by pirates and managed to escape, turning up on English shores disorientated and far from her homeland. Shenanigans ensue as everyone around her takes the story and runs with it, and Caraboo allows them to believe it, until it is revealed that she is not exactly who she says she is.

The plot is loosely based on the real life Mary Baker, an impostor who managed to convince members of the British gentry into believing she was the runaway daughter of an Indonesian sultan.

A portrait painted of Mary Baker c. 1817, in the guise of Princess Caraboo.

Phoebe Cates stars as Princess Caraboo/Mary Baker, opposite Stephen Rea as Mr. Gutch, a reporter investigating her story. Kevin Kline is cast as Frixos, the Greek butler who remains highly skeptical of Caraboo’s authenticity while his employers attempt to ingrate themselves with the mysterious young woman.

The film’s lavish sets and costumes (by Tom Rand) are the sort of culturally appropriative mash-up of 19th-century Other-ism that you’d expect from the period. Everything is beautiful, but almost none of it is grounded in any sort of reality, much like Carboo herself. Within the context of the plot, this works fabulously, building a magnificent feast for the eyes in terms of the costuming that breaks away from the usual bland Regency white dresses and gorges instead on colorful silks and outlandish jewelry and headdresses. These people have no idea what they’re doing, but gosh darn it, they’re committed to whatever it is!

The Prince Regent, sitting upon his throne of iniquity.

Any scene where there’s silk being thrown about has my undivided attention.

The ridiculousness of Caraboo’s outfit here makes me absurdly happy. The calash bonnet with the giant diamond earrings and poofy sleeved smock… It’s all so weird and wonderful.

The best scenes are between Caraboo and Frixos, who absolutely does not buy her shit one little bit. It’s also no wonder with that kind of chemistry, that Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates are married.

Caraboo gets some truly to-die-for jewelry in this film, including this beautiful diamond leaf tiara.

Yes, that is, in fact, Jerry Hall, the former Mrs. Mick Jagger.

See if you can spot the number of Asian and Islamic references in the film!


Who remembers Princess Caraboo?


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

12 Responses

  1. Fran in NYC

    Saw this in the movies and it was very enjoyable! Glad to be reminded of it; it’s been a long time!

  2. Bea

    I saw it AFTER watching the 1995 P&P… and was startled to see “Caroline Bingley” (Anna Chancellor) inhabiting a bit part and a bland one at that!

  3. Martha Hesselein

    Love, love this film. Stephen Rea’s sad puppyism works well here. Kline’s Frixos is deliciously insufferable. Phoebe Cates is regal AND vulnerable. The rest of the cast is lovely.

  4. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I remember being a very young gothling when this came out. I was heavily disappointed that, despite the name, Princess Caraboo had nothing to due with native Alaskian people. Thought stuff you missed in history class just had an episode devoted to Mary Barker and I remembered the movie.

  5. Barb D

    This is one the movies I have to stop and watch whenever I find it clicking around the channels. I was just thinking the other day, it’s been a while, I’d like to watch it again. Now will have to look for it.

    • Jenno

      That’s called a poppyfields movie. The kind of movie that, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, suddenly paralyzes you on the couch and you watch it to the end even if you had a million better things to do. Happens to me if I stumble on Field of Dreams or Apollo 13.

  6. Justme

    I love this movie! It’s exactly like you’ve said—they do a realy great job portraying the Regency obsession with all things “oriental” (which later blossomed into Victorian Orientalism—or as i like to call them, “Victorian Weebs”)