A gripping true story does not invariably lead to a triumphant film. For every success like “The King’s Speech,” there is a snoozer like the Amelia Earhart disaster “Amelia.” Films about great artists can be especially problematic, often failing to match the genius of the subject. (Remember Andy Garcia as “Modilgiani”? No? Case in point.)
“Leonie,” a well-intentioned but dull story of the mother of the late sculptor Isamu Noguchi, is not a complete miss, but it’s certainly not a great film, either. The film opens today in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst).
I’m afraid the blame lies squarely with director Hisako Matsui, since the story can hardly be called boring, and the performances are mostly captivating, especially from Emily Mortimer as the eponymous heroine, an American educator, journalist and editor.
When we first meet Leonie Gilmour, it is early 20th century New York City, and she is responding to a help wanted ad placed by soft-spoken Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, played by Shido Nakamura. Noguchi seeks an editor, while Gilmour looks to “take what is at the deepest level of the soul, and put it on a piece of paper.” They begin a collaboration on his novel, “American Diary of a Japanese Girl,” and, soon, a love affair.
These early scenes, alternating between flashbacks of Gilmour’s Bryn Mawr days and her burgeoning relationship with “this dashing poet from strange lands,” as she calls Noguchi, set the tone for the film: prickly, somber, dry.
Things pick up when a publisher is found for “American Diary,” albeit one who wants the book credited to an anonymous author. Within minutes, Noguchi and Gilmour move from a touch on the hand to talk of marriage, and an announcement of pregnancy.
The news is not greeted well, and Noguchi returns to Japan, while Gilmour moves from New York to Pasadena to live with her mother, sweetly played by Mary Kay Place. Isamu is born, and the film becomes infinitely more involving.
Well, a bit more. Confronted with prejudice and headlines screaming “Yellow Peril,” Gilmour eventually agrees to join Noguchi in Japan. This is where the majority of the film takes place, and the Yokohama-set scenes, too, are more visually impressive and dramatically alluring than the New York chunk.
But “Leonie” never rises above predictability. Discovering the twists and turns of Leonie’s life in Japan and how it resulted in her son’s artistic success is of interest, certainly. Yet even at less than two hours, it feels overlong and overwrought. The images of Isamu Noguchi’s work at film’s end are far more compelling than what came before it.
So as a story highlighting a strong, independent woman, “Leonie” succeeds. As a captivating drama, it does not.
Still, for Mortimer, “Leonie” is a wonderful chance at a true lead role. Too often, the English actress has been pushed to the outskirts of strong films like “Shutter Island” and “Match Point.” But given a chance to take center stage, she proves to have a forceful and passionate on-screen presence. If only the film matched her intensity.
Place is missed as “Leonie” progresses, and “Mad Men” star Christina Hendricks gives another fine supporting performance. But no one else registers, and the mind wanders. By the time Isamu is an adult, it’s difficult to care about him, or his mother’s fate. (The old age makeup on Mortimer doesn’t help, either.)
“Leonie” does tell an undeniably fascinating tale, and it is hard not to come away with great respect for Gilmour and her son. Her sacrifices indubitably led to Noguchi’s greatness, and if nothing else, the film succeeds in making that truth crystal-clear.
Is that enough to make “Leonie” worth seeing? It probably depends how devoted one is to the art of Isamu Noguchi.
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Shido Nakamura, Christina Hendricks, Mary Kay Place
Director: Hisako Matsui
Running time: 102 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief sexuality, partial nudity and brief rough language.
The Lowdown: Early 20th century American educator, editor, and journalist Leonie Gilmour raises artist and architect Isamu Noguchi.