movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


(© 2001 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.)

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Kate and Leopold

Kate and Leopold opens with an exploration of the intricate workings of a 19th century clock. This opening sums up key elements of the film: time; technology across the centuries; and the precise way that each cog fits into another cog, setting gear upon gear in motion.

There is no wasted motion in Kate and Leopold. As in writer/director James Mangold’s Copland, every detail has a purpose, every moment is developed. Instead of a film built on a quirky premise, a standard "fish out of water" premise, Kate and Leopold treats with respect both 1876 and the present day, focusing on their common bonds, rather than serving either as parody.

The film begins in New York of 1876, first in the workings of a clock tower and then moving to an East River construction site--known today as the Brooklyn Bridge. Mangold’s 19th century was a time of innovation, both in technology and in art. Leopold (Hugh Jackman), Duke of Albany, is well aware that nobility is passé. He is a forward-thinking man and more interested in his design for an elevator than in his pedigree. When he unwittingly chases a stranger through a time portal, he approaches his new surroundings as a trained scientist--collecting data and reading directions. He adjusts with relative grace.

Kate (Meg Ryan) is making the best of a life cobbled together. She has a high-pressure job, a dependent actor-brother named Charlie (Breckin Meyer), and an eccentric ex-boyfriend/upstairs neighbor named Stuart (Liev Shreiber). She is in the middle of a ticklish situation with her boss, J.J. (Bradley Whitford), who is dangling the promotion in front of her--as he simultaneously dangles improper invitations.

Hugh Jackman previously appeared in the romantic comedy Someone Like You, but the under-developed script, and his under-developed character, allowed him little opportunity. Here he is the sincere center of the script, never winking at the concept. It may seem ironic but Leopold is the most comfortable and least outrageous character of the ensemble. Jackman is the perfect straight man, a sparkling foil for the comic quirks and struggles of the contemporary New Yorkers.

In the supporting role of Stuart, Liev Schrieber (Scream trilogy) is given an amazing spectrum to play. After falling down an elevator shaft (a clever by-product of removing the inventor of the elevator from 1876), Stuart finds himself in the past, where he sticks out much more than Leopold in the 21st century.

Breckin Meyer (Clueless and Studio 54) is wonderful as Kate’s sweetly unfocused brother who immediately embraces Leopold as another "actor," gleefully joining him in a chorus of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General." Charlie and Leopold trade romantic advice--Leopold teaching Charlie to be more sincere and courtly, Charlie advising Leopold how to handle a modern woman like Kate. West Wing’s Bradley Whitford is wonderfully arrogant as Kate’s caddish boss, who is easily defeated by Leopold in a duel of culture.

Ryan suffers from being accused of playing the same cutesy character over and over, but she is under-appreciated for her serious work in films such as Courage Under Fire. However, Ryan’s comic characters rarely are given the opportunity to display such intelligent competence and control in the workplace as Kate. Ryan’s Kate is more mature than her other characters, a woman becoming resigned--not bitter--that her competence in life might be limited to the workplace, with her messy relationships with Charlie and Stuart an acceptable substitute for love.

Kate and Leopold is a wonderful showcase for the ensemble cast, the range of James Mangold, and his fine production team.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]