Princess Caraboo” is an airy bit of historical fluff. The romantic comedy, based on a true story about a Pacific island princess in 1817 England who may not be for real, could be considered Merchant Ivory Lite: The great costumes and sets are more substantial than the plot and characters.
Frothy diversion, which world preemed at the Montreal fest over the weekend and will follow up at the Boston fest, is inoffensive and will entertain those who enjoy period romances, but it’s questionable whether that is enough to draw a sizable public.
Princess Caraboo (Phoebe Cates) shows up in a country village unable to speak or write English, but slowly conveys a story of her kidnapping from a royal household and her swimming for safety from a pirate ship off the English coast.
The Worralls (Jim Broadbent, Wendy Hughes) — at the bottom of the upper classes — see the princess as a means to increase their wealth and prestige.
Their problem is Gutch (Stephen Rea), a local reporter who is suspicious of the princess even as he finds himself falling in love. Central plot point concerns whether Caraboo is on the level.
The chief attractions here are away from center stage. Kevin Kline milks a supporting role as the Worralls’ Greek butler for all it’s worth, while John Lithgow is a standout in a featured turn as a skeptical academic who begins to succumb to the princess’ charms.
Equally striking is Freddie Francis’ location shooting in Wales and western England, which brings the early 19th century to life.
A ball planned to introduce the princess to England’s Prince Regent (John Sessions) is a gem of art design and choreography. In addition to production designer Michael Howells and his team, credit is due to Anthony van Laast for staging the period dances.
But the central story, by director Michael Austin and co-scripter John Wells, is cotton candy. Caraboo’s story is suspicious from the beginning, and is not helped by the casting of Cates, who is charming, but looks far too modern for the role.
Rea glides through the part of the muckraking reporter, but with nothing really at stake, he has nothing to play against.
The predicament that Caraboo’s fraud — if fraud it be — can be punishable by death never seems a possible outcome of the story. Her ultimate romance with the reporter is wholly an invention of the filmmakers.