The Past is Back!
Kate & Leopold is a romantic / time-travel / fish-out-of-water story. Any story dealing with three reasonably complex issues like this will have to prioritize them, because it's just not possible to treat them all equally. This one puts its emphesis on the romantic firstly, and the fish-out-of-water angles before really approaching the meaning of time travel.
Which is inconvenient for me because I most of all want to discuss the temporal aspects of the film, both philosophically and practically. The big thing is I want to congratulate the film on getting one important thing right - or at least the way I like to think about it.
Early on, I felt like the film was suffering from Back to the Future syndrome. Do you remember how, in that film, Marty's family was slowly disappearing from his picture of them? They were saying that meddling with the past would change the future. But considering this in terms of a 4-dimensional timespace tends to remove the concept of cause and effect as we tend to think about them, essentially meaning that someone visiting the past will be living out their timeline the same way they had done before ever going back.
Kate & Leopold, I am glad to say, does get this right - it's quite valid to have character be thinking differently from the reality of the movie. Actually, that's a good way to get across to the audience what that reality is. I am sad to say a lot of the details got botched up - I don't like the idea of portals as they are presented in the film (that's not horrible - I can allow it). But mainly there is a great confusion about what happens when the past is revisited, so far so there is a huge, gaping hole in the plot because of it. The exercise of finding it is left to the reader, though I'll venture it's not too hard a task.
But like I said, that's really the tertiary line of the film. The secondary one of being the fish out of water - specifically of Leopold being brought from 1876 New York to the same city in the present day - this works alright, but is mostly dropped halfway through when the romance line comes through. I think this works out the best, and perhaps should have been the real focus of the film. I find Hugh Jackman's Leopold the most believable in those situations.
And lastly is the romance. Meg Ryan's Kate ends up, reluctantly, falling for this person whose story she doesn't quite believe. For me, though, there's a problem. The before and after times for both characters are believable for me, but the actual transition of feelings on them just seems wrong - too fast, too easy, and just not right. I feel that de-emphesizing this bit would have, ironically, made it easier to get right, rather than the drama they try to build up around it.
Liev Schreiber continues to show he's a great character actor as the bumbling former boyfriend of Kate, and great-grandson of Leopold who discovers the way back and forth in time. Nobody else has or takes an opportunity to really shine, though I do like Natasha Lyonne's ability to submerge in character - we just never have a chance to find out who that character is.
All in all, Kate & Leopold has a decent heart, but is really a toss up for me. It's a bit situationally romantic, but didn't quite work for me as a romantic story. I won't caution anyone away, as I am certainly a fan of this sort of chance taking, though I cannot especially recommend it either.
As a postscript to this review, I sat through this movie a second time with the commentary track running. Director James Mangold, who also cowrote the screenplay (but not the original storyline) confesses to not having an inkling about how the time travel is supposed to work. I imagine this explains how the movie got it right where so many got it wrong before, yet then fails to be cohesive in what ought to be easier to get right. Surely there were changes made to pump up the love plot that screwed up the time travel. It would be certainly be interesting to see what Steven Rogers had come up with in his original story.
And for what it's worth, I like Mangold's commentary. Often times, the fewer commentators, the better the track, and he goes solo. He has a lot to say about this film, and movies in general, without getting bogged down by the technical details. It is clear he is into the storytelling side of things, and really cares about getting more subtle things across to the audience.
And lastly, I was negligent in mentioning before that Kate & Leopold incorporates a scene from The Prisoner early on. It's a great little touch that I doubt that many people really appreciate.
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