“KATE AND LEOPOLD” (2001) Review

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“KATE AND LEOPOLD” (2001) Review

I am a big fan of time travel movies. Especially well written movies featuring time travel. Mind you, not all of the films and television episodes featuring this genre have impressed me. But once in a while, I have come across a handful that I have found particularly appealing.

I never saw “KATE AND LEOPOLD” when it first appeared in movie theaters during the Christmas holidays in 2001. Looking back, I wondered why I never bothered to go to the theaters to see it. When I saw the original release date, I realized that I was more interested in watching “LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”. In fact, I became so obsessed with that movie that I forgot all about “KATE AND LEOPOLD”. I did not see the latter until it was released on DVD.

Co-written and directed by James Mangold, “KATE AND LEOPOLD” is a romantic-comedy fantasy about an English duke who accidentally travels through time from New York in 1876 to the present and falls in love with a career woman in early 21st century New York. The movie begins with Leopold Alexis Elijah Walker Thomas Gareth Mountbatten, Duke of Albany attending a ceremony for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1876, where he spots amateur physicist Stuart Besser reacting to engineer Washington Roebling’s speech. Upon his return to his Uncle Millard’s Manhattan manor, Leopold is informed that his family’s depleted fortune needs to be replenished with a marriage to a wealthy American heiress. During a ball held in his honor, Leopold spots Stuart observing him. The 19th century aristocrat and tries to save the 21st century scientist from falling off the unfinished bridge; only to fall with the latter into a temporal portal between centuries. Leopold awakens in 21st century New York.

During his sojourn in 21st century New York, Leopold becomes acquainted with Stuart’s ex-girlfriend, a slightly cynical market researcher named Kate McKay and her younger brother Charlie, a cheerful, yet somewhat gauche and ambitious actor; after Stuart falls down his apartment building’s elevator shaft. Although Leopold has less trouble befriending the very friendly Charlie, he seemed to clash a good deal with Kate, who remains bitter over her breakup with Stuart. However, both Kate and Leopold grow closer after she arranges for him to appear in a margarine commercial. Friendship eventually develop into love, when Kate becomes aware of Leopold’s jealousy toward her relationship with her boss, J.J. Camden. But a bitter quarrel between the lovers over the margarine commercial, along with Stuart’s realization that Leopold needs to return to 1876 threaten to tear them apart.

“KATE AND LEOPOLD” could have easily become one of those sweet, treacly love stories more suited for infatuated fangirls. The movie’s ending certainly seemed to hint a love story, straight from a romance novel. But the rest of Kate and Leopold’s romance proved to be a solid balance of romance, cynicism, slapstick humor and a touch of bitterness. Mangold and co-writer Steven Rogers’ screenplay allowed the story to rise above the usual schmaltz, thanks to their main characters. Kate McKay seemed like a far cry from the usual leading lady in a romantic comedy. Thanks to Mangold and Rogers’ writing and a sharp performance from Meg Ryan, Kate is an ambitious and cynical woman, who not only has a penchant for brutal frankness, but seems incapable of moving past her embittered breakup with Stuart. Leopold Mountbatten/Duke of Albany seemed more like a typical leading man in a romance. He is an English aristocrat with handsome features and impeccable manners. However, Hugh Jackman did an excellent job in conveying Leopold’s priggish and self-righteous personality, with a surprising penchant wallowing in illusions. Not what I would consider typical leads in a romantic comedy. Perhaps the Hollywood Foreign Press Association thought so, when they nominated Jackman for the Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.

Mangold and Rogers’ list of interesting characters continue with Kate’s ex-boyfriend, Stuart Bessner. Ex-boyfriends in a romantic comedy are usually assholes who make life difficult for the leading ladies. Stuart was not an asshole. But Liev Schreiber did such a marvelous job in not only conveying Stuart’s annoying traits – his verbosity, professional obsessions and lack of responsibility toward his personal life – but also allowing the audience to discover a very likable man beneath the irritating traits. I do not know about others, but I cheered when Stuart ended up with his own little romance by the end of the film. Now, if I had to choose the most irritating character in the movie, it would be Kate’s younger brother, Charlie McKay. I have not seen Breckin Meyer in anything else, but I have to give kudos to him for not only capturing Charlie’s irritating and boorish personality, but also making him very likable. Both Meyer and Ryan provided a marvelous and poignant moment in the film in which the two McKays bid each good-bye for the last time. It always leaves tears in my eyes. If there was one character who could have easily been labeled as the movie’s asshole, it would be Kate’s boss, J.J. Camden. Thanks to Bradley Whitford’s entertaining performance, J.J. is slightly boorish, controlling, and an egotist. Yet . . . he is not only likable, but also very forgiving. Despite his humiliation by Leopold, Kate not only kept her job, but also received a well-deserved promotion by a forgivable J.J. He turned out to be a decent sort in the end.

The movie also featured some memorable supporting performances. The American-born Philip Bosco gave a convincing performance as Leopold’s dependable valet, Otis. Paxton Whitehead was excellent as Leopold’s frank and disciplined Uncle Millard. In fact, I get the feeling that once Uncle Millward recover from his disappointment over Leopold’s marriage to Kate, he might come to admire her practicality, discipline and ambition. Natasha Lyonne gave a charming performance as Kate’s sweet secretary Darci, who happens to be a big fan of romance novels. Ebony Jo-Ann was wonderful as Stuart’s no-nonsense hospital attendant, Nurse Ester. Kristen Schaal was equally charming as Miss Tree, the wealthy American heiress whom Uncle Millard had marked as Leopold’s future wife. And I found it very difficult to view her as an unattractive woman, no matter how hard she tried to convey that image. The movie also featured Leopold’s funny quarrel with a NYPD beat cop over Stuart’s dog relieving himself on the city street. The cop was portrayed by none other than Viola Davis, who provided a sneak peak of those impressive acting skills that would make her a star before the decade ended.

There were other aspects of “KATE AND LEOPOLD” that I enjoyed. I found Stuart Dryburgh’s photography of New York City – past and present – very impressive and colorful. I was especially impressed by his work in the 1876 sequences. His photography was helped by Stephanie Carroll’s set decorations, Jess Gonchor’s art direction and especially Mark Friedberg’s production designs for this particular sequence. Their combined worked helped Mangold do an exceptional job in re-creating 1870s New York City. I could also say the same about Donna Zakowska’s costume designs. I found them very attractive and an excellent reflection of the Gilded Age, as reflected in the image below:

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As much as I enjoyed “KATE AND LEOPOLD”, I must admit I had a major problem with it. My biggest problem with the script turned out to be the mode in which three of the characters used to time travel between 1876 and 2000 (or 2001). What did Mangold and Rogers used? A temporal portal situated mid-air around the Brooklyn Bridge. In order to access this portral, the time travelers had to fall from a high height – either from a scaffold in 1876 or one of the bridge’s steel girder in the 21st century. I realize that the two writers were trying to add some suspense and drama to the story’s method of time travel, but I thought it was a bit too much to force the characters to utilize what I feel is an unnecessarily difficult mode. I also found it odd that Mangold and Rogers would choose Mountbatten as Leopold’s surname. The name was adopted by the English branch of the Battenberg family in 1917, to counter the rising tide of anti-German sentiment during World War I Britain. It did not exist in 1876.

“KATE AND LEOPOLD” would never make my list of top ten favorite time travel movies. I had no problems with James Mangold and Steven Rogers’ screenplay, despite its flaws, Mangold’s excellent direction or the marvelous cast led by Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber. Frankly, I thought the movie had a very entertaining and charming story filled with some complex and interesting characters. But it is more of a romance film, instead of a time travel film. And that is why I view it as one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time.

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One Response

  1. Despite its flaws this movie remains one of my favourites in the genre and I am so glad someone likes this film as well. It’s all too easy for people to dismiss Kate and Leopold as an unworkable time travel romance, but it’s the sparks of reluctant romance (at first) and humour that energize this movie.
    Another film in similar vein which I like is A Prelude to a Kiss with Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin. It’s much maligned but the chemistry between Ryan and Baldwin is very good.

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