'Leonie' review: Film uncovers the mother behind the artist

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Rare is the artist who drops into the culture, fully formed and utterly self-created. There were influences, nature and nurture, that shaped them.

That's what the new film "Leonie" is about. Leonie Gilmour wasn't a great artist. She took up with a writer and edited him into near-greatness. He then scurried back to Japan and married somebody else.

But the child from that union became sculptor and landscape architect Isamo Noguchi, one of the major figures in 20th century art.

"Leonie," starring Emily Mortimer as Noguchi's mom, must qualify as the oddest "woman ahead of her time" bio-drama in living memory. Here was an early 20th century alumnus of Bryn Mawr and the Sorbonne who never had much of a career herself, but whose influence came from a child she had outside of a conventional marriage and outside the racial boundaries of her day.

In 1901, she responds to an "editor needed" ad. A poet, Yone Noguchi, placed it. He needs someone to edit a book, "American Diary of a Japanese Girl." He's young, handsome, uncertain of his English, but enthusiastic. And he's presumptuous. He shows her his press clippings, reviews of his poetry.

"VERY impressive," Noguchi ( Shidô Nakamura) says of himself.

Leonie takes the job, polishes Noguchi's novel into proper English and helps him pitch it to publishers. Naturally, or rather abruptly, they become lovers, thanks to his scribbling "Leonie Gilmour is my wife" on a piece of paper. And the book's a hit.

"In this country," he purrs, "you are my voice."

But things go south from there. Their difficult relationship, not helped by the fact that she must stay in the shadows while he is feted by the rich and famous, worsens.

In flashbacks, we see the promise of Leonie's academic life, meet a favored classmate ( Christine Hendricks of "Mad Men") and discover Leonie's curiosity about the world, and Asia in particular. She has lived her life by one rule -- "Don't bore me by being ordinary." She certainly isn't.

When Noguchi, worried over racism directed at Japanese after his country's victory in the Russo-Japanese war, returns to Japan, a pregnant Leonie vows to go there herself. After her son is born, she does just that, adjusting to the alarmingly sexist culture, to Yone's aloof treatment of her, learning the customs and slowly befriending the locals.

All the while, she is shaping her boy to be what she always wanted to be -- an artist.

"Our children carry our wishes to the future," she says. And there's no point in the kid even considering another field to work in. His die is cast.

"Leonie" is a bit of a muddle, a star vehicle for Mortimer that focuses so heavily on her character that its bigger impact is diminished. But veteran director Hisako Matsui ("Yukie") has done this culture-clash thing before, and never goes wrong focusing on carefully observed recreations of American life at the turn of the 20th century, and the feudal, restrictive Japan that the willful Leonie makes her way to.

And that's pretty much enough. No matter how great her ambitions, no matter how little she was able to accomplish under her own name in her own time, here was a woman history remembers simply through the force of her personality and the simple courage it took to be ahead of her time.

Showtimes: Find when and where 'Leonie' is playing near you

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LEONIE
2.5 stars (Grade: C-plus)
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Shidô Nakamura, Christina Hendricks
Directed by Hisako Matsui, written by Hisako Matsui and David Wiener. A Monterey Media release.
Running time: 1:38
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief sexuality, partial nudity and brief language
Photo/Video credit: Monterey Media
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