When we first see Kate McKay (Meg Ryan), she’s scoffing. A market researcher who trumpets the common sense of the masses, Kate watches as a test audience of women reacts to the sappy final clinch of a romantic movie, and responds with a dismissive sneer. She’s recently broken up with Stuart (Liev Schrieber), an inventor of dubious abilities, and after supporting this “dreamer” emotionally and financially for four years, Kate has grown prickly and cynical. Which, of course, makes her the perfect protagonist for this kind of modern love story, one that reasserts the very mythology of romance Kate finds so unbelievable.
Perhaps it’s the overfamiliarity of the boy-meets-girl story line, or some deep-seated fantasy impulse, but Kate’s mate will appear in the most unexpected manner: As in the recent Happy Accidents, the only way this modern, flawed woman can find a devoted man who appreciates her is via time travel.
Her ex-boyfriend has discovered a wrinkle in time which allows him to head back to 1876 to observe his forward-thinking ancestor, Leopold (Hugh Jackman), the Third Duke of Albany, whose curiosity leads him to follow Stuart back to the present. When Kate meets Leopold, sparks fly. His calm confidence, relentless dignity and appreciation for a slower way of life calms the neurotic Kate, while Leopold is drawn to her immense energy and the way she embodies a world where individuals are distinguished by their achievements.
Director James Mangold (who has a pithy cameo as the put-upon director of the movie Kate test-screens) wants to have it both ways with Kate & Leopold, which he co-wrote with Steven Rogers (Hope Floats). Mangold (Heavy, Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted) wants to make fun of escapist romance stories — like the bodice-ripper novels Kate’s assistant voraciously reads — while creating his own version of one.
None of this would work at all if it weren’t for a perfectly nuanced performance from Jackman (X-Men, Someone Like You), whose Leopold is more Mr. Darcy than Fabio. Upright, honest and unfailingly polite, he’s a dashing romantic figure who’s too good to be true, which is precisely the point.
Our heroine, the spunky, no-nonsense Kate, might have had something to say about that if she hadn’t already been sacrificed at the altar of happily-ever-after romanticism, a blissful state cynical women can achieve only by believing in the impossible.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.