Every time I have tried to write about a movie lately, something else politically awful has happened and eaten my time and attention; then there has been life to deal with and no chance to catch up on sleep. On the assumption that this pattern is not likely to change any time soon, here's a movie anyway.
In the spring of 1817, a young woman was discovered wandering the village of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire. Her dress was outlandish, her manners graceful but obviously foreign. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed, attractive and expressive. She appeared neither disoriented nor unintelligent, but she did not react when addressed in English, except to the speaker's gestures and tones of voice. No one understood the language she spoke. She was briefly jailed in Bristol for vagrancy, retrieved by the wife of the same unimpressed magistrate who had sent her away. Eventually, through a combination of pantomime, interpretation, and the imaginative assistance of her listeners, the mysterious stranger made it understood that she was a daughter of the king of Javasu near Sumatra, stolen from her native island and sold into slavery by pirates; having been traded ship to ship across the oceans, she had finally escaped by jumping overboard while off the coast of England and made her way alone across the countryside, eventually fetching up in Almondsbury. She could write in her native language and demonstrated its characters, which looked a little like Chinese and a little like Greek and a lot like nothing ever before seen in England. She observed a vegetarian, teetotal diet and prayed daily to her monotheistic God, whom she addressed as "Alla-Tallah." She liked to practice archery, fence, and dance. From the start, she called herself by the name of "Caraboo." Residing for ten weeks with Samuel and Elizabeth Worrall at Knole Park, Princess Caraboo became something more than a nine days' wonder, especially after experts in the languages and culture of the East Indies were unable to break her story—the more she was studied, in fact, the more convincing her presentation became. She became the latest craze of fashionable society, receiving visitors in Bath, sitting for portraits in Bristol; articles about her were published and republished in the local papers, at which point her description was recognized and the exotic fantasia collapsed. In reality, "Princess Caraboo" was the confabulation of twenty-five-year-old Mary Baker from Witheridge in Devonshire, an itinerant serving girl with a quick ear for languages and a genius for theater. She had fabricated the customs of her country from sailors' tales, travel books, and free-floating Orientalism; her imperious, flowing foreign tongue was a mixture of Malay, English Romani, and her own invented language. She had taken everyone—scholars, adventurers, high society—in. Unpunished by the law despite the seriousness of her offence, still fêted by her public despite the reveal of her deception, the ex-princess took passage for America at the end of the summer. The fullest contemporary account of her imposture was written and published later that year by John Mathew Gutch of Bristol as Caraboo: A Narrative of a Singular Imposition
, and almost two centuries later it formed the basis for the script of Michael Austin's Princess Caraboo
(1994), which derspatchel
and I watched over the weekend.
The film is a romanticized version of the story, but not, it turns out, in ways that I mind. Rather than relying on is-she-or-isn't-she ambiguity for its narrative pull, the script wisely opts for lightly observed social satire, treating Caraboo's effect on the surrounding cast as a kind of Rorschach of their characters and Regency England in general. Kind-hearted, discontented Mrs. Worrall (Wendy Hughes) is captivated by the romance and mystery of Caraboo's plight, adopting her guest's taste in brightly patterned calicos and sparking a fad for turbans and bangles among her social set; her efforts to make the princess feel at home include redecorating rooms in a lavish silken style and flying a homemade gold-and-crimson flag over Knole Park as if it were the Javasu embassy. Nouveau riche banker Mr. Worrall (Jim Broadbent) has less imagination than a radish and a lot higher alcohol content and can't believe the deference his wife is extending to some weird vagabond in breeches with her hair tied up in a scarf, but even he isn't too slow to cotton on to the lucrative business opportunities presented by close acquaintance with an authentic princess of the Spice Islands. To the sour magistrate Haythorne (Roger Lloyd-Pack), all foreigners are vagrants and wastrels and not understanding the language in which a trial is conducted is no object to receiving a sentence from the court; to the jaded Lord and Lady Apthorpe (Peter Eyre and Jacqueline Pearce), a foreigner this quaint and beautiful is a diversion worthy of presenting to the Prince Regent (John Sessions! We drove ourselves crazy trying to recognize him until the credits). Kevin Kline gets a chance to exercise both his Greek accent and his air of weary condescension as the snippy butler who has the newcomer judged as a fraud right up until the moment she bites him for trying to look up her skirts. John Lithgow briefly and piercingly steals his scenes as a supercilious philologist who comes from Oxford to debunk Caraboo and leaves with both his assumptions and his heart in pieces. At the center of all of their fascination is the princess herself, like a cipher of the Orient that none of them have ever seen but everyone knows when they see it. Here the film has a great asset in Phoebe Cates, who I understand is extremely famous for some teen movies I've never seen. As both Caraboo and her creator, she is almost never offscreen and for much of the runtime has the difficult job of holding the audience's interest and sympathy while being almost opaque to interpretation—the script is not constructed to tip its hand any sooner than history did. The actress' ability to look the part with her dark, delicate looks and her lightly folded eyes, her unapologetic carriage and her startling dazzle of a smile would count for nothing if she were actually a blank. Instead, in every interaction, we realize that behind the attentive gravity that is her most common expression we can always see her thinking
; what we can't see is whether we're watching a fish out of privileged water working to comprehend an entire new culture on the fly or a con artist calculating her next strategic move. When she weeps at a performance of Schubert's Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, the emotion is naked and unfeigned and tells us nothing about the nature of the woman with tears on her cheeks except that she's got good taste in piano trios, even anachronistic ones. She can't be what she claims. No real person from the Indonesian archipelago would so match in every particular the English fancy of an "Oriental princess." So then what is she?
That's the line of inquiry pursued by the film's version of J. M. Gutch, played by Stephen Rea as narrator, adversary, and eventual co-protagonist of Caraboo's story. He's the script's greatest departure from history, although I can see how he evolved from the admiring tone of the real Gutch's narrative, which the film uses to bookend its action. An Irish printer and journalist for Felix Farley's Bristol Journal
—"none too successful financially and, I will admit, none too fortunate in love, either"—he's taking notes in the gallery when Caraboo comes up before the assizes for vagrancy; he asks a snarky question, gets a prompt snub, and is left curiously touched and intrigued by a woman he's seen for all of five minutes, standing straight-backed despite her chains with all the poise of royalty waiting for some tiresome but requisite ceremony to be over. At first the Worralls want nothing to do with him, especially since his paper has been publishing what Mr. Worrall blusterously considers libels about his bank; presently an appeal to their Christian charity, not to mention his ability to publicize it, wins them over sufficiently for an audience with the princess. The viewer may recognize him as a danger. He's suspicious and he's smart. He cuts a nice ambiguous figure among the brightly dressed gentry, conspicuously out of fashion in his black coat that doesn't show the ink; his disheveled dark hair gives him the initially misleading air of a Romantic poet rather than the put-upon publisher Coleridge can't be bothered to pay. It's a good part for Rea's lanky slouch and wry deadpan—he's a bruised romantic in a cynic's trade, a boy who dreamed of far-off islands with names like poetry grown up into a man who makes his living from muckraking and monotony, disillusioned with himself and resigned to it. "As a journalist," he comments with stinging prescience, "I know people will believe two things—what they read in the newspapers and what they want to believe. And that's the way of the world." Predictably, he's soon as obsessed with the elusive Caraboo as the rest of the countryside, but with a lovely twist: surrounded by people who have staked their self-images, their social success, and even their financial futures on the truth of a stolen princess from the far side of the world, Gutch wants her to be a fraud, not because he resents her impersonation or even because it will make a better story for his paper, but because he's enchanted with the idea of "an ordinary girl with an extraordinary imagination," tricky and clever enough to reinvent herself as exotic royalty, take the ton
by storm, and make her social betters pay through the nose for the privilege. He was never that brave himself. But he has to know, either way, and so we watch his investigations progress as Caraboo's star rises in society, culminating in an all-night fancy-dress ball at which she dances till dawn with the Prince Regent while Gutch, who wouldn't be invited dead to a party of this quality, gate-crashes recklessly in hopes of making her understand that what he can discover, others will soon learn, and rich people don't take well to being made fools of. He calls her by the name he believes she was born with. She gazes at him with wide, dark eyes and says nothing, in English or otherwise.
At times the performances are stronger than the script. It was co-written by the director with John Wells, who also contributes a supporting turn as the decent, credulous parson who first brings Caraboo to the Worralls' attention; it has some nonfatal but noticeable trouble finding its way to the right ending, and while its broad jabs at English hypocrisy generally land ("And as Christians, we are taught, 'Blessed are the merciful'"–"Rubbish!"), its attempts to highlight the harsh social conditions behind its narrative of glittering imposture meet with only partial success. The score doesn't help—pace
Richard Hartley and his fine work with Richard O'Brien, it's Hollywood fairy tale where a more period sound might have grounded things better. Maybe I've just developed an allergy to the celesta. Fortunately, the movie fires on all cylinders exactly where it needs to, and that is its deft and steady skewering of Orientalism. I really need to read more postcolonial theory.( There you are; here I am. )
I am sorry that I missed this film in theaters; the only extant DVD has been formatted to fullscreen and in addition to all the spatial and character information that gets lost when that happens, there are some lovely shots that I suspect would have really benefited from 1.85:1 Technicolor, like a dockside view of Bristol Harbour that even on my computer looks like an early nineteenth century painting. Freddie Francis did the cinematography and it's not like The Elephant Man
(1980) looked amazing or anything. It furthers my affection for Stephen Rea, whom I honestly think I encountered for the first time in the script of Brian Friel's Translations
(1980); it makes me wonder what else Phoebe Cates might have done if she had not retired from acting after Princess Caraboo
; it never loses its theme even when the plot occasionally wobbles. It would double-feature quite handily with Charles Sturridge's FairyTale: A True Story
(1997), another sweetly pointed period piece about fakery and narrative and belief that I missed in its first run. At this point I have movies like Busby Berkeley's Bright Lights
(1935), Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat
(1934), John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven
(1960), Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game
(1932), and Denis Villeneuve's Arrival
(2016) on my conscience and would really like to get around to them sometime soon. Between the news and Thanksgiving, this week really disappeared. I am thankful that I got this thing written at all. This imposition brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon