(director/writer: Michael Austin; screenwriter: John Wells; cinematographer: Freddie Francis; editor: George Akers; music: Richard Hartley; cast: Wendy Hughes (Mrs. Worrall), Jim Broadbent (Mr. Worrall), Phoebe Cates (Princess Caraboo/Mary Baker), Kevin Kline (Frixos), John Lithgow (Professor Wilkinson), Stephen Rea (Gutch), John Wells (Reverend Hunt), Murray Melvin (Lord Motley), Roger Lloyd- Pack (Magistrate Haythorne), Peter Eyre (Lord Apthorpe), Jacqueline Pearce(Lady Apthorpe), John Sessions (Prince Regent); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Andrew Karsch /Simon Bosanquet; Columbia TriStar Pictures; 1994-UK/USA)

Moderately amusing social satire of mistaken identity, that has little bite.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British filmmaker Michael Austin (“Killing Dad”)directs this moderately amusing social satire of mistaken identity, that has little bite. It’s based on a true story and filmed as a charming fairy-tale. It’s co-written by Austin and John Wells.

In the summer of 1817, in the Bristol countryside, at a time when the English law calls for vagrants and beggars to be hanged, a beautiful but penniless young woman wearing foreign clothes and speaking an undetected foreign language appeared in the farm fields and was brought by the workers who found her to Reverend Hunt (John Wells). The puzzled vicar, not knowing what to do with her and not sure if she’s a vagrant, brings the mystery woman to the local wealthy banker Worrall’s estate. The insecure Mrs. Worrall (Wendy Hughes), who wants more than anything else to be accepted by the aristocracy, wants to believe despite no proof that the so-called Princess Caraboo (Phoebe Cates) is an Oriental princess who escaped in a shipwreck from pirates who enslaved her and accepts the stranger as a valued house guess over the objections of her boorish, idiotic and skeptical husband (Jim Broadbent).

The curious narrator of the story, the local reporter, John Gutch (Stephen Rea), talks his way into the Worrall household to investigate. He soon comes to admire Princess Caraboo for her rich imagination and her moxie, as there’s the strong possibility that she’s a fake having a good laugh at the expense of the ruling class for their gullibility. In due time, the enigmatic, tattooed in the thighs, and turban wearing woman is given a reluctant pass by an Oxford University ethnographer (John Lithgow) as possibly authentic only because he becomes smitten with her and thinks she acts like a blueblood. Caraboo is then invited to a society dance given by Lord and Lady Apthorpe (Peter Eyre and Jacqueline Pearce). There she dances the night away with the foppish Prince Regent (John Sessions), while the sympathetic reporter who has fallen in love with her, has discovered the social-climber’s true identity as the maid Mary Baker. She was given a second chance in life by a Charity House in London, but aspired to be more than a maid. The reporter realizes Mary’s in great danger, as she faces charges of perjury–which is a hanging offense. The reporter, with the help of the charity-minded Mrs. Worrall, manages to make a deal with the crooked banker and magistrate (Roger Lloyd- Pack) not to hang Mary Baker as an impostor in exchange for not printing a story involving their bank fraud scheme.

The well-acted costume period drama, a kind of Masterpiece Theater production, that adds a fictional romance to its true story, had its heart in the right place, yet somehow the lighthearted family entertainment story never excited me or held my interest throughout.