What is film acting? Is it simply reading lines? Or is it more to do with that mystical thing called “screen presence?” An actor often can get away with being so-so or even terrible with dialogue if he or she is likeable and photogenic, but how many actors can you name who are great at dialogue but have no screen presence?
Q’orianka Kilcher (cousin to Jewel) falls into that former category. In Terrence Malick’s The New World, she delivered a revelatory Pocahontas, which it seems now was in large part because her performance was almost completely visual. The camera recorded her body movement and subtle facial reactions. Her dialogue, usually in unsubtitled Algonquin, was minimal. That she was an actress of limited talents didn’t matter at the time.
Now, the producers of Princess Kaiulani have performed an almost cruel deed: They’ve made it glaringly obvious she’s an actress of limited talents. Kaiulani gives Kilcher a proper, lots-of-dialogue role as the titular last princess of Hawaii. In the years before annexation, Kaiulani splits time between home and the U.K. (daddy was a Scot), falling for a charming Brit (Shaun Evans), but ultimately devoted to being the champion of her people.
Kaiulani is a classically dull, inert historical pageant with all the trimmings: tone-deaf expository dialogue, declaratory acting, insistent scoring, studied crane shots, hopelessly simplified history, one-note characterizations and interesting facial hair. On the plus side, it’s very, very short.
Without Terrence Malick to mold her performance, Kilcher is lost. She delivers her unreadable lines with the polish of a junior-high student wrestling with Arthur Miller. She’s fine as ever when the camera’s just observing her, but when she’s asked to express complicated emotions, she overdoes it. She’s trying, and by trying, she fails.
Malick understood that Kilcher has a natural screen presence. The makers of Princess Kaiulani are expecting someone like Emily Blunt. The two are not the same.