Monday, July 5, 2010

Princess Ka’iulani
Grade: C
Cast: Q’orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, Will Patton
Director: Marc Forby
Free Admission Granted

So things never did go well for Linda Manz.

The 16-year-old girl at the stem of Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven, she met the ill fate of many young actresses who give performances-for-the-ages. She soon disappeared, left to glance back on her one indelible performance, certainly with pride.

On the other hand, Sissy Spacek used her role in Malick’s Badlands (and later Carrie) to propel a storied career. Granted she was 24 somehow playing 15 (born Christmas day, 1949)m but the acting instincts on display would later launch her path to fame.

In 2005’s The New World, Malick maximizes the strong eyes and dewy natural innocence of newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher, taking her on a journey from lovestruck child to an emergence as the Mother of America. Writing last year in The Guardian, the English critic Peter Bradshaw said The New World was “anchored by a perfomance so instinctive and note-perfect by a teenage non-pro called Q'orianka Kilcher that I almost hope she never acts again.”

For five years, Bradshaw had his wish. Now with Princess Ka’iulani, it is Kilcher’s turn at the verdict of fate. Will she be a Manz or a Spacek?

It seems clear that writer-director Marc Forby has seen The New World. In story structure, Princess Ka’iulani recalls that film to the last ripple of water. Amid political turmoil, the last princess of Hawai’i is sent from an idyllic tropical kingdom for stodgy old England. Staying with friends and attending a boarding school, she faces British snobbery and falls in ooey-gooey love with an Englishman. This will force an eventual choice between her affections and her allegiance to her people.

The setting is Hawai’i during the political turmoil at the turn of the 20th Century. The Hawaiian king and queen are pawns of British and American colonial interests. American-born landowners plot a revolt that will bring Hawai’I into American possession. The fate of the Pacific is at stake.
Princess K takes advantage of its beautiful natural setting. (Obviously, it’s Hawai’i. Just stick the camera somewhere and start rolling.) It layers its characters in attractive, sun-dappled photography often in twilight, presenting figures as shadows in nature.

Princess K has noble aspirations, playing the traditional role of historical corrective. However, it does so in a very conventional culture-clash way. Too often, the princess and other characters break into portentous speeches. They pose and enunciate as if they know they are in a historical moment.

I’m reluctant to criticize a 19-year-old actress too harshly. How good were you at your job when you were 19? Would you have wanted the whole world to watch your professional performance at that age? However, at times Kilcher simply appears to be reciting lines. While she adds a charge to her angry moments, it’s too much too often. However she does have a sense of photographic presence, as well as an expressive side. All is not lost.

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