Home > Reviews > PRINCESS KAIULANI – Stephen Warbeck


December 4, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Princess Kaiulani is a film about the life of the extravagantly-named Victoria Kaiulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn, who was the heir to the Kingdom of Hawaii until the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. Kaiulani – who was educated in England and New York and was in no way the ‘Barbarian Princess’ that the media of the time dubbed her – immediately took up the cause of her country, petitioning US presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland to restore the monarchy, but her efforts were cut short by her untimely death in 1899 at the age of just 23. Nevertheless, Kaiulani was exceptionally popular in the islands, and is remembered today as a strong and tireless campaigner for Hawaiian rights and sovereignty. The film is directed by Marc Forby, stars The New World’s Q’Orianka Kilcher as Kaiulani alongside Barry Pepper, Will Patton and Julian Glover, and features a rich and expansive original score by Stephen Warbeck.

It’s been 12 years since Stephen Warbeck won his Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love in 1998, a decade since his banner year when he scored Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Quills, and five years since his last major theatrical release, Proof, in 2005. I’m not entirely sure what led to his gradual disappearance from the mainstream film music scene, as I have always found him to be an immensely talented composer with a beautiful, lyrical sound and a welcome lightness of touch, but hopefully Princess Kaiulani will return him to the forefront of directors and producers’ minds. It’s a soft, gentle, intimate portrait of a beloved national heroine, which invokes her nobility and steadfastness, as well as her beauty and grace. Interestingly, the one thing the score does not do, for the most part, is evoke traditional Hawaiian music: despite the presence of a few traditional percussion and woodwind instruments – notably the hano Hawaiian nose flute – for almost its entire running time, the score is firmly rooted in the Western classical tradition, so anyone with an aversion to luau music will have nothing to fear.

Making use of the lush tones of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra conducted by the internationally renowned Andreas Delfs, Warbeck’s score presents cue after cue of tender orchestral writing, mainly highlighting piano and string performances, but occasionally swelling to encompass the full orchestral range. The album’s early cues are clearly intended to evoke the gentle idyll of Hawaii, with soft tribal woodwinds in the opening track. The first performance of the elegant main theme – a simple rising 4-note motif – comes in Track 2 (none of the cues on this release of the score have names), although this beauty is tempered with a few moments of more dramatic music that make use of rumbling timpanis, ethnic vocals and martial trumpets, which are heard in more dissonant third and fourth cues, and which comes to a head in the extended and quite tense-sounding seventh track.

There is a lovely variation of Kaiulani’s theme for a rhapsodic solo piano in Track 9, a pair of elegant solo violin versions in Tracks 10 and 11 performed by the Honolulu Symphony’s concertmaster Ignace Jang, a tender and refined piano-based love theme in Track 12, and a more stirring orchestral statement of the main theme in Track 13. When the action shifts from Hawaii to England, the switch in locales is represented by changes in the music too. Several of the mid-album cues feature beautiful classical piano solos of which virtuosos like Jean-Yves Thibaudet or Lang Lang would be proud, and Tracks 16 and 17 cues evoke English ballrooms of the late 1800s through a series of opulent dances for a chamber-sized ensemble.

As the fate of Hawaii as a monarchy becomes more precarious, and the threat of violence looms, the music reflects this new danger, and new resolve. Tracks 19 and 21 feature an increased percussion section, stark brass writing, and a more nervous aspect, while Tracks 22 and 23 have noble, long-lined horn performances that speak to Kaiulani’s determination. Later, Track 25 has a more tribal element, with various rattling shakers underpinning darker performances by the orchestra and providing a more noticeable sense of impending menace, while Track 29 is the closest the film comes to having an action cue, with more anxious string writing and a beefed-up timpani-led rhythmic undercurrent.

Towards the end of the album, as Kaiulani’s young life draws to a close, her theme takes on a tone of regret and remembrance; the thematic statements in Tracks 33 and 34 are gentle and moving, with a clear sense of emotional pathos, especially when the theme is accompanied by a solo violin line or fluttering woodwind passages. The one nod to traditional Hawaiian music is John Edwards’ song “Lei No Kaiulani”, which is performed in Track 36 by vocalist Kalei Kahalewai and renowned Hawaiian ethnomusicologist Blaine Kia in an appropriate tribute to one of that country’s most beloved historical figures.

This review of Princess Kaiulani is of the promo album produced by the film’s producers for awards consideration purposes. Unfortunately, the score for Princess Kaiulani is not yet commercially available, but the film’s production company – Island Film Group in Honolulu – has confirmed that plans are afoot to possibly release the score on CD in the near future. In the meantime, I would heartily recommend watching the movie to hear this gorgeous work in context, and keep hoping that the score CD comes to light soon.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • 39 unnamed cues

Running Time: 70 minutes 50 seconds

Island Film Group promo (2010)

Music composed by Stephen Warbeck. Conducted by Andreas Delfs. Performed by The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Featured musical soloists Ignace Jang and Blaine Kia. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman. Album produced by Roy J. Tjioe.

  1. Christopher
    December 4, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    Great review to a score I’ve never heard of until now. Thanks, Jon. I’m looking forward to the commercial release for this one. I’ll have to see about the film as well. This is also the first I’ve heard of it.

  2. December 9, 2010 at 8:08 am

    I’m interested to hear it as well (not going to see the film, though)

  3. Alexander
    June 1, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Can someone identify what sounded like a Chopin Nocturne in this movie. The melody is very familiar but I cannot come up with the title and Opus number.
    Thank you.

    • Angel
      July 19, 2011 at 11:28 pm

      I, too, have been looking for it. Watch the film extra on stephen warbeck on YouTube you can hear it again around 3:15. Unfortunately they’re all unnamed!

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