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By Amy R. Handler | March 23, 2013

An early feminist’s selfless devotion to her son changed the course of art history throughout the United States and the world. Filmmaker Hisako Matsui’s Leonie is a biographical drama about the lesser known Leonie Gilmour (Emily Mortimer), and the unusual way she raised her son, the legendary sculptor and landscape architect, Isamu Noguchi (Jan Milligan).

Matsui’s story begins in 1901, when 28-year-old Gilmour responds to an editing position placed in a local Manhattan newspaper by Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (Shidô Nakamura). His command of English, not the best, Noguchi sought help for his newest fictional project, The American Diary of a Japanese Girl. Annoyed that Noguchi was late for her interview, Gilmour proceeds to chastise the 25-year-old man, but it soon becomes apparent that she’s no match for the beguiling Noguchi, who not only coaxes her to take the job, but into his bed as well.

That same year, Noguchi’s book was published by the New York firm Frederick A Stokes. Much of this success was due to Gilmour’s persuasive marketing skills at the meeting with the publisher. Gilmour soon discovers that she is pregnant with Noguchi’s baby, and much to the horror of her otherwise progressive mother (Mary Kay Place), Gilmour decides to move to Japan, so that she and Noguchi can provide a normal home life for their son. However, things quickly go downhill when Gilmour and her child move into their new home, and Gilmour very quickly learns that she’s not the only woman in Noguchi’s life.

It would be very easy for a film like this to veer toward melodrama, by the very nature of its script. But Leonie never travels that path, most likely because screenwriters Hisako Matsui and David Wiener keep their dialogue minimal, and leave lots of room for silent action. In fact, dialogue in the film seems to run a parallel course with Japanese culture and art—sort of balanced toward peacefulness and calm, even in the midst of turmoil. The writers also leave much of the film open to question as, for example, who the father of Leonie’s second child Ailes (Kelly Vitz) actually is. Ambiguity in character and plot leaves much to the imagination, which is always a source of great power.

Hisako Matsui never allows his film to become character-driven, in spite of the seeming forcefulness of Leonie’s personality—and the fact that Emily Mortimer’s interpretation is often reminiscent of a young Katherine Hepburn. This subtle but important attribute strengthens the movie, and makes action move so quickly that 102-minutes of footage seems to fly by, long before we’re ready to say goodbye to the characters. The film is also beautifully shot, allowing viewers to enter lush landscapes, the sea, and the typical sparseness and tranquility of a Japanese home.

The musical score of Jan A P Kaczmarek also commands notice by its uniqueness in both tempo and physicality. Music reflects the poignancy and desperation of character and plot at the same time it behaves like a character in and of itself. Sometimes grandiose and other times retreating, the musical sound feels like the sea, as it commandeers action, then merges with the land.

Perhaps the weakest point in Matsui’s otherwise perfect work is its periodic narration. Though it’s easy enough for most viewers to understand that the narration moves along nonlinear tracts of storytelling—much like the reading of a journal through flashbacks— some people might find this cinematic technique distracting. Still, Matsui’s Leonie is, very simply, a beautiful film, and one that will live in our hearts and minds long after it ends on screen.

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  1. Amy R Handler says:

    I strongly retract this error in gender, and stand royally corrected!

  2. John MacKay says:

    Hisako Matsui is a woman! For God’s sake! And a damned talented one! You should be ashamed of yourself, Amy!

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