This exceptionally light-handed satire tells the purportedly true story of a young woman who is mistaken for a Far Eastern princess and briefly becomes the toast of English society. Considerably enhanced by Phoebe Cates's graceful performance in the title role, PRINCESS CARABOO is both a
classic Cinderella tale and a gentle but penetrating spoof of the Orientalist mania that swept Europe during the age of imperialism.
In 1817, England has enacted Draconian poor laws that punish vagrancy with flogging and stealing with death. When a enigmatic young woman (Cates), dressed in exotic clothing and speaking an unidentifiable tongue, turns up in the countryside near Devon, she's taken to the local manor house, where
Mrs. Worrall (Wendy Hughes) is intrigued by her regal bearing. But the oleaginous Greek butler, Frixos (Kevin Kline), believes she's a fraud and persuades Mr. Worrall (Jim Broadbent), a comically venal merchant banker, to have her tried for vagrancy at the Assizes.
Supplementing her strange language with pantomime, the woman persuades the magistrate that she is a princess of the South Seas who was captured by pirates and escaped by swimming ashore; her name, it appears, is Caraboo. She is returned to the manor, where Mrs. Worrall treats her with the
deference due to royalty, dressing her in Oriental silks and interpreting her peculiarities as customs of the mysterious East; Mr. Worrall sees her as a link to East Indian riches which might be exploited to save his failing bank. Even Frixos is eventually won over by her elegance and charm, but
local journalist Gutch (Stephen Rea), a liberal rationalist of Irish origins, remains suspicious and calls in philologist Professor Wilkinson (John Lithgow) to test her authenticity. Although Wilkinson comes close to proving Caraboo a fraud, he becomes infatuated with her and declares her genuine.
Princess Caraboo becomes a local sensation, and Lord and Lady Apthorpe (Peter Eyre and Jacqueline Pearce) escort her to a lavish party, where she's an enormous success and even dances with the foppish Prince Regent (John Sessions). Meanwhile, Gutch's investigation has revealed that Caraboo is
actually Mary Baker, an impoverished streetwalker who briefly found employment as a servant girl before dropping from sight. Although Gutch decides to keep her identity a secret, a former employer recognizes her from newspaper accounts and tells the press. A furious Mr. Worrall turns Mary over to
the police; she's tried and sentenced to death. However, with Mrs. Worrall's help, Gutch uncovers evidence of criminal activity by Worrall's bank and uses it to blackmail the banker into arranging Mary's passage to America. At the last minute, Gutch joins Mary aboard the ship and greets her in a
mysterious foreign tongue: Gaelic.
A moderately budgeted but handsomely produced feature, PRINCESS CARABOO puzzled critics and did little business during its brief theatrical release, although, given its agreeable surface and suitability for family viewing, it's potentially a video sleeper. Ably directed by Michael Austin (who
co-wrote THE SHOUT and GREYSTOKE) and expertly acted (Cates and Lithgow are standouts), the film works very well simply as a period romance. However, for those who care to look deeper, it's best understood as a clever fantasia on the theme of Orientalism.
Technically an academic discipline through which 19th-century scholars sought to understand their Asian trading partners and vassals, Orientalism also refers broadly to Europeans' undying fascination with the mysterious East, and to the various meanings of "the Orient" within the Western
imagination. As England experienced spasms of interest in Asian things, people, and customs each time the spoils of a new colonial conquest--India, China, Malaya--reached local economies, middle-class Englishmen came to associate the Orient with a host of "exotic" qualities: despotism, decadence,
irrationality, and--perhaps most significantly--female sexuality. In both popular and academic discourse, Edward Said has written, the Orient suggested "not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, [and] unlimited desire."
Thus Princess Caraboo is seen as more than just a woman; she's a virtual embodiment of the Orient. Poor Mary Baker, who is shrewd enough to assume a vaguely Eastern identity, instantly becomes both a cynosure of sexual interest and a social problem that needs to be solved. As Princess Caraboo,
she's at once fascinating and threatening; the controversy that swirls around her results from the compulsion of everyone she meets to define her in terms of gender, nationality, and class. The country lads who first encounter the Princess can't resist grabbing her crotch to determine her sex; the
Worralls and their servants are at a loss to deal with her until they determine her social standing; Professor Wilkinson attempts to master his fear of the (sexual) unknown by locating Caraboo in a "scientific" taxonomy of Eastern languages. Once she's exposed, Mary Baker can only escape the
prison of her social identity by emigrating to America, supposedly a classless society of unlimited opportunity--although canny viewers may well infer that this idea of America is no less specious than the Orientalist view of Asia. (Adult situations, profanity.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1994
- Rating: PG
- Review: This exceptionally light-handed satire tells the purportedly true story of a young woman who is mistaken for a Far Eastern princess and briefly becomes the toast of English society. Considerably enhanced by Phoebe Cates's graceful performance in the title… (more)