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Film Review: ‘Leonie’

Failing to carve anything graceful or fluid out of a slab of biography, helmer Hisako Matsui does bring to light a curious and intriguing story of a great-woman-behind-a-great-man in “Leonie” — namely Leonie Gilmour, mother of the celebrated Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Played with a strong spine and a resolute lack of charm by Emily Mortimer, Gilmour is a perfect vehicle for Matsui’s agenda, which is clearly a feminist/revisionist celebration of the life of a major artist. Limited theatrical play will remain so, but as Noguchi-philes are legion, they may amp up the ancillary.

Gilmour defied convention by having a child by the expatriate Japanese poet Yone Noguchi in early 20th-century New York, then transplanting her son and her emancipated attitudes to the even more socially rigid Japan of 1907. But even as the script by Matsui and David Wiener (based on a Noguchi biography by Masayo Duus) acknowledges the racism and seemingly antediluvian morality of both cultures, the film never gets under the skin of a woman who was living her life beyond the edge of acceptability. This is partially due to the structure of the film, which in its early stages jumps from episode to episode without really developing Gilmour’s persona. As a character, she is revealed in small snapshots, which only serve to set Leonie up as an insufferable snob, with what would have been referred to at the time as highfalutin ideas.

It’s always easier, with the benefit of hindsight, to establish a character as a moral heroine; it’s something else to create a living, breathing portrait of a heroic woman within the constraints of her own time. But Matsui seems more interested in Gilmour as an earnestly envisioned message-delivery system than as a creature of flesh and blood. And this she undoubtedly was, given her passionate affair with Yone Noguchi (Shido Nakamura), and her refusal to remain in America while he fled back to Japan, or to allow anything less than what she believed best for her son (played as a child by Bowie Gunn and as an adult by Jan Milligan). Her recognition that he had the soul of an artist is one of the film’s subtler aspects, while others, such as her relationship with her mother (Mary Kay Place), generate cookie-cutter Freudian friction.

The relationship with Yone Noguchi doesn’t go down much better. He and Leonie meet in 1901 New York — he’s a fledgling poet, she’s the would-be writer responding to his ad for an editor. She polishes his lyrics into an acceptable American product (it’s only suggested that he would have been nowhere without her), and together they collaborate on “The American Diary of a Japanese Girl,” which Leonie, with prescient marketing savvy, allows to be sold as a real-life memoir, thus making her not just the mother of an artist, but a founding father of spin.

Although the book is a hit, the breakout of the Russo-Japanese War creates anti-Asian sentiment on the streets, and Noguchi declares he’s going home. Leonie declares she’s pregnant; it doesn’t stop him. After a visit to California and her mother’s utopian farm (the Pasadena of “Leonie” is fertile and barely populated), she heads to Japan, where her common-law husband has taken on another wife and proceeds to treat Leonie like dirt. Between Noguchi’s abrupt shifts in temperament and Nakamura’s cliched portrayal of same, there’s not a lot of genuine emotion being generated.

Mortimer, however, creates a real character, regardless of how insufferable or strident Leonie can be. As the elderly Leonie, whose flashbacks bookend the movie, the actress looks a little like Elijah Cook Jr.; her old-age voice contains more than a little Katharine Hepburn. But viewers will feel they’ve met someone real, even if she’s not always out to woo them.
Tech credit are generally good, especially d.p. Tetsuo Nagata’s bronzed and burnished widescreen lensing; the interiors in particular pay much homage to Ozu. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s score is fine, but the insistent strings that introduce each and every chapter of the story makes it feel as though one’s ears are on a forced march.

Leonie

Reviewed online, New York, March 22, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 102 MIN.

A Kazuyoshi Masuda presentation of an Essen Communications/Hyde Park Entertainment production. Produced by Hisako Matsui, Masao Nagai, Ashok Amritraj, Yuki Ito. Executive producers, Patrick Aiello, Shûichi Fukatsu, Joyce Jun. Co-producer, Manu Gargi.

Directed by Hisako Matsui. Screenplay, Matsui, David Wiener, from the biography by Masayo Duus. Camera (color, widescreen), Tetsuo Nagata; editors, Craig Hayes, Sabine Hoffmann; music, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; production designers, Shu Yamaguchi, Giles Masters; art director, Aaron Haye; set decorator, Luci Leary; costume designers, Aggie Guerard Rodgers, Kazuko Kurosawa; sound (Dolby Digital), Yukio Kubota, B.J. Lehn; re-recording mixers, Richard Kitting, Jonathan Wales; visual effects supervisors, Sean Findley, Jason Gottlieb, Samir Hoon; assistant director, Ed Lichte ; casting, Emily Schweber.

With: Emily Mortimer, Shido Nakamura, Mary Kay Place, Christina Hendricks, Mieko Harada, Jan Milligan, Bowie Gunn.

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