Tag Archives: Phoebe Cates

Beauty in the Movies: Princess Caraboo

Part of the reason I started Beauty in the Movies was to bring unknown or under-appreciated films to the attention of you readers out there, so today I’m featuring a lesser known movie which I hadn’t watched in years, but was happy to revisit.

Based on a true story, Princess Caraboo is spun on the question of “is she or isn’t she?”, so I will do my best not to give anything away while I impart a brief idea of the story to you. In early 19th century England, a girl (Phoebe Cates) is picked up and brought into the magistrate for committing the crime of begging. It was a common occurrence for the time, but this girl wasn’t like anything the inhabitants of the village of Almondsbury had ever seen before. She wore a turban and strange clothes, and she spoke an unrecognizable foreign language. When she is put before the magistrates, one of her fellow prisoners comes forward and states he can understand her language, he then tells the court her father is a king. At the plea of a local aristocrat’s wife, Mrs. Worrall (Wendy Hughes), the magistrate gives the girl into the care of the woman and her husband (Jim Broadbent). The Worall’s Greek manservant Frixos (Kevin Kline) believes she is a fraud, but her captivating presence seems to enchant everyone she encounters, including a journalist (Stephen Rea) who is determined to confirm or expose her amazing story one way or another. One thing is for sure, the question of the girl’s true identity will keep you watching until the end.

This was the last film Phoebe Cates made before she retired from acting in 1994  (although she did come back for the 2001 film The Anniversary Party). Cates avoided the path of the typical starlet and chose to raise her family and leave the industry, judging by her 20+ year marriage to Kevin Kline (quite an anomaly for Hollywood) it’s a decision she appears happy with. While it was a loss for the film industry, having appeared in some much-loved films (Gremlins, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Cates still has a huge fan base, including me, who will always love her for making the movie Drop Dead Fred. In this film more than any other we get to see her acting chops, and they’re quite impressive. Cates manages a charming, regal, innocence in this film and gives a mesmerizing and memorable performance as the Princess. The film is also filled with notable British actors, and strangely Jerry Hall makes an appearance, I’m not sure why, but she wears a pretty costume.

The art direction and cinematography in Princess Caraboo are beautifully done, especially during the Royal Ball sequence (I’m such a sucker for a good ball sequence) which features some really gorgeous and interesting sets and costumes. The mix of the early 19th century Austen-era style with the Asian influences makes for some gorgeous visuals.

This film is about imagination, and that’s not to say whether Caraboo is or isn’t a “real” princess, it’s about what other people believe, and what we choose to believe. Princess Caraboo leaves you wondering what makes a person who they are. In My Fair Lady Eliza Doolittle tells us that “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated” and Princess Caraboo presents us with the same dismaying reality that often a person’s worth is based on what they’re born with, rather than who they are as a person.

The story in the film is surprisingly true to the real adventure of Princess Caraboo, although as with all historical fiction, the film makes many suppositions and takes ample liberties. The real Princess Caraboo was quite a fascinating character with a remarkable story, and she is definitely worth looking up, just make sure you watch the film before you investigate her tale, because part of the pleasure of this film is not knowing the truth up until the end.

Whether she is or isn’t doesn’t matter as much as the way others react to Caraboo when they believe her to be princess or fraud. At nothing more than the mere suggestion of noble blood, disgust is replaced by awe in an instant. Watching the characters flicker between belief and doubt makes you ponder the notions of how we value one another. What makes a princess any different from a beggar? Is it who she is as a woman, or is it the way we perceive her that makes her who she is? One thing I know for sure is if you are in possession of a vivid imagination, you’re luckier than most, and if you can open up the minds of those around you and draw them in to the world you’ve created, well then anything is truly possible.

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