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Princess Kaiulani -- Film Review

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Hawaii's 19th century colonization by the U.S. forms the intriguing backdrop for "Princess Kaiulani," a stirring romantic drama centering on the last royal heir to the native line of traditional monarchs.

Retitled since screening as "Barbarian Princess" last year at the Hawaii International Film Festival, where it won the audience award, this independent film is attractively cast and produced with a distinct specialty luster. It's likely to appeal particularly in West Coast and island markets as well as to art house patrons who appreciate period romance.

By the late 1880s, the independent kingdom of Hawaii, undermined by the influence of large American sugar companies, is struggling to maintain control of the islands' political and economic fate. Childless King Kalakaua (Ocean Kaowili), whose mixed-race niece, Princess Kaiulani ("The New World's" Q'orianka Kilcher), is designated to succeed him to the throne, succumbs to pressure from American business interests to sign a puppet constitution that significantly diminishes Hawaii's sovereign status.

Fearing for 13-year-old Kaiulani's safety in the increasingly unstable political climate, her widowed Scottish father, Archie Cleghorn (Jimmy Yuill), whisks her away to live with his friends, the Davies family, in Great Britain and obtain a proper Victorian education.

As the princess matures into a cultured young woman during her unwelcome exile, she attracts the attention of Clive Davies (Shaun Evans), son of her father's business associate.

Their romance distracts Kaiulani from her devotion to Hawaii, even as American citizens -- led by statehood agitator Lorrin Thurston (Barry Pepper) -- overthrow the monarchy in 1893, backed by U.S. Marines. The Davies conceal these developments from Kaiulani, who blames Clive for the deception when she discovers that her father's urgent telegrams have been withheld.

She swiftly puts their engagement on hold, resolving to save her kingdom by traveling to the U.S. and pleading her case for independence before Congress and President Grover Cleveland.

Although the U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898, the memory of Princess Kaiulani still is beloved by many Hawaiians. In only her second lead role, Kilcher persuasively portrays Kaiulani's transition from sheltered royal to marginalized monarch, appealingly capturing the young princess' growing determination to advocate for her nation.

Yuill is effective as her doting but determined father, and though Pepper overplays as Kaiulani's colonial nemesis, the rest of the supporting cast is solid, particularly the local actors speaking in mixed English and subtitled Hawaiian dialogue.

Writer-director Marc Forby adeptly leverages his previous producing experience for this feature debut, creating an evocative visual style that benefits enormously from access to Iolani Palace, the former home of Hawaiian royals, and an English manor house for the U.K. segment. Cinematography, production design, costumes and music smoothly converge for an impressive period effect.

Opens: Friday, May 14 (Roadside Attractions)
Production: Content International presents a Matador Pictures, Island Film Group and Trailblazer Films production
Cast: Q'orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, Shaun Evans, Jimmy Yuill, Julian Glover, Will Patton, Ocean Kaowili
Director-screenwriter: Marc Forby
Producers: Nigel Thomas, Ricardo S. Galindez, Roy J. Tjioe, Lauri Apelian, Marc Forby
Director of photography: Gabriel Beristain
Production designer: Steven Lawrence
Costumes: Kathryn Morrison-Pahoa
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Editor: Beverly Mills
Rated PG, 97 minutes