Exquisitely acted by the pristine beauty Emily Mortimer and lushly photographed with the literary sensibility of a Merchant-Ivory saga, Leonie is the true story of the life of Leonie Gilmour, a courageous and fiercely independent American woman at the turn of the century who defied social taboos as the lover of Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, moved to Japan, where women were scorned as second-class chattel in a society of men, and raised their son to become the world-famous artist Isamu Noguchi. Color it inspirational.
Though set in an earlier time, the material covered in Leonie is cut from the same fabric as Bridge to the Sun, the 1961 biopic about Gwen Terasaki starring Carroll Baker as the headstrong Southern girl who married a Japanese diplomat and survived the horrors of life as an outsider in Japan during World War II. Leonie begins in 1901, when the Bryn Mawr graduate goes to work as the New York editor of the talented but still-unknown poet, reluctantly becoming his mentor, co-writer and devoted life partner. Abandoned when she becomes pregnant, she follows Yone (Shidô Nakamura from Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima) to Japan, understanding nothing of the language or culture, and after discovering that Yone already has a Japanese wife, she raises their son Isamu alone, earning a meager income as an English teacher. A firm believer that women ought to have the same rights, responsibilities and freedoms as men, Leonie fights an uphill battle at a time when interracial marriage is not only frowned on but forbidden in America and a social disgrace in Japan. The misery in her own relationship, the joy in her son’s progress—these elements of the story are told through letters to her best friend Catherine (Christina Hendricks, the sexpot office manager on Mad Men). It’s an awkward conceit, and a more traditional narrative form would have been more cinematically satisfying. But what Leonie learns, about customs, rituals and art, and what she teaches, about strength, independence and dignity, are a source of enlightenment for her friends, enemies and students. Especially the talisman she lives by: “When everything else fails, there is always the future.”
With no formal schooling, her son’s unconventional education makes him sort of an early child genius. He designs and builds his first entire house at age 10 for his family, which now includes a baby sister (father unknown). Using his American citizenship to attend school in New York, the boy learns that there are no boundaries and no borders in art. Small wonder that his mother’s influence gave him the drive to become one of the world’s most renowned sculptors and architects until his death in 1988. Alas, there are times when the life of a vagabond woman bridging the gaps between continents, cultures and wars proves too complex and too conflicted to keep the audience focused, which might explain why Leonie has been gathering dust on the editing-room shelf since 2010. Still, it’s a remarkable portrait of a brave, uncompromising woman who maintained her identity and spirit against all odds. Directed by Hisako Matsui and gorgeously shot in the rainy streets of New Orleans, the cherry orchards of Japan and the orange groves of California by acclaimed Japanese cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata, Leonie is a rich tapestry of cross-cultural revelations, released to the public at last, and a welcome addition to an otherwise dreary movie season.
Running Time 102 minutes
Written by Hisako Matsui, David Wiener and Masayo Duus (biography)
Directed by Hisako Matsui
Starring Emily Mortimer, Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Shidô Nakamura