“If they lived in the same century they’d be perfect for one another!” So declared publicity campaigns for James Mangold’s Kate & Leopold (2001); an enchanting romantic comedy with a genteel touch that continues to hold up, thanks to its clever screenplay by Mangold and Steve Rogers that avoids the more obvious ‘punch line’ approach to its ‘fish out of water’ scenario and, instead, focuses on the genuineness of its central flawed protagonists: Kate McKay – a jaded marketing/research analyst from the present, and Leopold, Duke of Albany (Hugh Jackman) – the cultured, though weary aristocrat from a more leisurely time.
The most engaging romantic comedies treat their star crossed lovers as people first, rather than figures of fun destined to run off together by the final fade out. Kate & Leopold’s great strength as a story revolves around an even more ambitious plot twist: time travel and the ostensibly very real possibility that our lovers will be parted for all eternity after their brief encounter. Herein, I am reminded of Somewhere in Time (1980); the melodrama that had Christopher Reeve’s contemporary playwright fall in love with a vintage portrait of Jane Seymour. Yet, the catalyst for time travel in Kate & Leopold is neither of our central protagonists, but an interloper into their romantic equation: Kate’s former lover, Stuart Besser (Liev Schrieber). This is an ingenious way of dispensing with the more gimmicky aspects of time travel itself.
Like Somewhere in Time, there is also a very real sense of loss through the passage of the years. But in Kate & Leopold, this loss is not of love itself, but rather a way of living that, at least from Leopold’s vantage, had once seemed rigidly self-assured. The space/time continuum is not explored through rose-colored glasses. In fact, Leo does not desire to return home to his own time – at least, not after his chance meeting with Kate McKay. This astute perception of the future, as a wondrously flawed place that could still appeal to someone unaccustomed to its fantastical chaos is refreshingly different too. For it crystallizes for the audience that there have always been people who have felt out of step and touch with their own time. This shared parallel makes us immediately appreciate Kate and Leopold’s plight individually and as a couple, and it polarizes our desire to see them both happy and together before the final fade out.
Our story begins with Kate: a harried exec whose search for Mr. Right has left her feeling hurt and alone. Effectively swearing off men, Kate has thrown herself into her work. Professionally, her commitment has paid off. But Kate’s romantic feng shui is about to change for the better after meeting Leopold in her ex’s apartment. Leo is every girl’s dream. He has all the social graces of a man from another time. There’s a good reason for this. You see, Leo is from another time. After discovering a porthole in the space/time continuum, Stuart has inadvertently allowed Leopold – who is a relative – access into the present. Meanwhile Kate’s boss, J.J. Camden (Bradley Whitford) is baiting her with a promotion, one with strings attached. His intensions are not entirely dismissed by Kate, who is herself shrewd and enterprising to a fault. In fact, Kate initially finds Leo quite annoying; his refinement a turn off rather than turn on, perhaps because she has misperceived it as disingenuous, despite glowing reviews to the contrary from her brother Charlie (Breckin Meyer) and personal assistant at work, Darci (Natasha Lyonne); the latter an incurable romantic.
Still unable to see Leopold for his true self, Kate nevertheless decides to exploit his elegance as the new spokesperson for her ‘Farmer’s Bounty’ ad campaign. The ploy works and J.J. promotes Kate – hoping that she will become his lover as gratitude. But by now even Kate’s hard-bitten cynicism has begun to erode, perhaps because Leopold offers her something far greater than the superficial whirlwind of a storybook romance that Kate abhors, or the even less flattering prospect of indulging in an office fling with her boss. But now comes the wrinkle: Leopold must return to his own time to preserve the space/time continuum. Kate, however, has had a change of heart. She follows Leopold into the past on the eve he is about to be forced to marry. The two are reunited and Leopold declares to an astonished crowd of well-wishers that his future bride will be Kate McKay.
Kate & Leopold won’t win any awards for high art, but it is a fairly compelling and sincere take on the old ‘lovers parted through time and by fate’ scenario. The New York locations (both past and present) give the story a well-grounded sense of substantiality. I know of no other city – except maybe Paris – that can so completely stand in as an integral character. Arguably, the movies have had their hand in shaping the mythology of New York as a state of mind rather than a place. Whatever the case, Kate & Leopold benefits immensely from having the Big Apple as its backdrop.
Apart from Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman’s central performances, which are uniformly believable, perhaps the most outstanding turn – certainly, the most sympathetic – comes from Liev Schrieber as the misunderstood genius. After being confined to the psyche ward, Stuart’s impassioned plea to earn back his freedom from nurse’s assistant, Gretchen (Stephanie Sanditz) by explaining himself – rather than his theory of time travel outright – is a heartbreaking moment of realization.
We come to appreciate and respect Stuart as more than just the catalyst for Kate and Leopold’s reunion. As it turns out, Stuart is the real romantic of our story. He is untouched by his disastrous relationship with Kate, and so appreciative of the opportunity to impact her burgeoning romance with Leo in a positive way that we cannot help but hope that his own future will be justly rewarded and equally as enriching. In the final analysis, Kate & Leopold holds up as a romantic/comedy, perhaps because it never deliberately tries to be either romantic or funny. It’s just a very good story, told with conviction and compassion, and played with genuine heart for all its worth.
Alliance Home Video’s Blu-ray includes only the director’s cut of the film. The DVD from 2001 also included the theatrical cut. And while this director approved version is preferred for story continuity, the Blu-ray is still problematic. Although image quality vastly improves over the DVD, this looks more like old digital source materials bumped up to 1080p rather than a true hi-def scan. The visuals exhibit a warm and textured characteristic. But flesh tones continue to look slightly more pink than they ought and color timing/balancing is still an issue – particularly during the scenes that have been reinserted into the film to comprise the director’s cut. Stuart Dryburgh’s evocative sepia tinged and soft focus cinematography is well preserved, and film grain at last looks like grain and not the horribly digitized grit from the DVD incarnation.
All in all, nothing will disappoint the casual viewer, although from a purist’s perspective, there is nothing to astound herein either. The audio is DTS 5.1 and exhibits subtle nuances previously unheard. Featurettes on costume design, the making of the film, interviews with stars and crew, deleted scenes, an audio commentary from director Mangold and a theatrical trailer round out the extras. Bottom line: Kate & Leopold comes recommended for its entertainment value. The Blu-ray is less spectacular than anticipated.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)