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Movie review: 'Leonie' biopic upstaged by woman's famous son

April 11, 2013|By Sheri Linden
  • A scene from "Leonie."
A scene from "Leonie." (Handout )

In the biopic "Leonie," the famous artists in a Japanese American family — the sculptor-architect Isamu Noguchi and his writer father — are supporting characters. The "woman behind the men," Leonie Gilmour, steps out front and center. She's ferociously independent and unconventional, and played with a bright, chilly strength by Emily Mortimer. But one of the disappointments of the film is that she is, ultimately, defined by the success of her son.

Director Hisako Matsui, working from a screenplay he wrote with David Weiner, has made a film that's rich in period detail, the period being the turn of the previous century. In 1901 Manhattan, Leonie becomes the editor and, eventually, the lover of the exceedingly self-satisfied Japanese poet and novelist Yone Noguchi (Shidô Nakamura). Undaunted after he leaves her, she takes on single parenthood, at first with the help of her own single mother (Mary Kay Place), who's homesteading a dusty patch of ranchland in Pasadena.

Educated at Bryn Mawr and the Sorbonne, Leonie possesses a curiosity about the world to match her intelligence, and much of the film involves her experiences in Japan, where she takes young Isamu in hopes of building a family with his father. Christina Hendricks appears briefly as a stateside friend who pointedly follows a more conventional, and less fulfilling, path.

Mortimer embodies her character's resilience and self-reliance, even when mouthing platitudinous dialogue, and despite the distracting upper-crust inflections of Katharine Hepburn that she adopts for the part. As a portrait of female strength and a celebration of the artistic spirit, "Leonie" too seldom comes fully alive.

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"Leonie." MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief sexuality, partial nudity and brief language. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Playing at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.

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