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...