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“Leonie”–The Lioness and the Sculptor

“Don’t bore me by being ordinary” –These are words Leonie Gilmour (exquisitely acted by Emily Mortimer) admonishes her college friend, Catherine (Christina Hendricks) at Bryn Mawr. After graduation, she departs on an astonishingly unconventional life at the turn of the 20th century.

Based on the true story of an American intellectual, “Leonie” introduces the story of Leonie Gilmour, mother of the renowned American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.  Filmed in lush period detail in the US and Japan, “Leonie” is a biopic of a woman who straddles two morally rigid cultures with no room for an independent woman.  She defies convention and law:  interracial marriage, premarital sex, and unwed mother. As the lover of the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (Shido Nakamura, one of the stars of  “Letters from Iwo Jima”), Leonie is employed as Noguchi’s editor for a novel for the American market.  With implied racism on the part of the US editor, Gilmour cleverly pitches the novel for the editor’s acceptance.  Noguchi responds to her pregnancy by abandoning her to marry according to Japanese customs, but Leonie defiantly moves to Japan to raise their son without the father’s support.

She is a pioneer, a  feminist who loves whom she chooses and lives as she wants. Her best friend, Catherine (Hendricks) illustrates the conventional role forced upon an upper class college woman: a conventional marriage of boredom in a gilded cage.  The film narrative hints at the source for Leonie’s heroic defiance of her generation’s moral code: her single mother (Mary Kay Place), a hippie before the 60’s,  homesteads a dusty patch of Pasadena ranchland.

Understanding nothing of the language or culture, Leonie tenaciously supports her young child by teaching English to young soldiers. The stoicism in her own daily routine, however,  never overcomes her joy in her son’s awakening to the art and culture of life in Japan.

With no formal schooling, her son Isamu designs and builds their first home at the age of 10, learning on the job from skilled artisans and craftsmen.  After the birth of his baby sister (father unknown), Isamu discovers his passion for art.  Encouraged by his mother, Isamu moves to New York  to eventually become one of the world’s most famous sculptors and architects.

The reedited version opened its American theatrical run in New York on March 22 this year after having been first released for the Japanese market in 2011.  Under very limited distribution, it is a shame that more potential viewers will not know of this extraordinary movie about a remarkable and eccentric woman.  Make sure you watch the credits to understand the range of sculpture and architecture Isamu Noguchi created!



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