There’s one thing that pretty much all time travel films have in common: Gadgetry. Whenever characters hop across time periods, they step into a car, or a phone booth, or turn a dial on a necklace…you get my point. There’s always a vehicle by which they travel. It’s very few films that have time travel that just is, and one of those is 2001’s Kate and Leopold.
The film starts at the gala christening of the Brooklyn Bridge. Crowds are milling around in awe, not only at the spectacle, but of Leopold, the Duke of Albany (Hugh Jackman), a very eligible bachelor who’s recently relocated to New York City from England. The Duke is busily sketching the bridge when he notices a guy in a trench coat observing him and holding an odd device up to his eye. Leopold gets curious, and starts following him, but the guy eludes him. He goes home, where his uncle is thundering about wanting his nephew resplendent for the ball that night. It’s not just any ball; Leopold will be announcing his engagement to one of the ladies in the room. He doesn’t know who yet, and Leopold isn’t thrilled at the prospect, but he has to fulfill his duty to his family. On the side, Leopold is an inventor who’s been experimenting with what we know today as being the elevator, but his uncle is more concerned about his securing a match with a rich family.
At the ball, Leopold notices the strange man in the trench coat again, only this time he goes after him, and catches up with him on the scaffolding at the Brooklyn Bridge. Thinking the guy’s going to jump, he climbs the scaffolding and grabs the his hand. He pleads with Leopold to let him go, and finally hits him with some pepper spray, but both men fall off and into the unknown.
Next we see Kate (Meg Ryan), who’s riding the elevator up to her apartment, when the compartment suddenly stops. She manages to open the doors, but has to take a giant step to get out. Once in her apartment, she notices a lot of thumping above her head, and goes up to the penthouse, where she sees Stuart (Liev Schreiber), aka Trench Coat Guy, seemingly about to get busy with someone. Disgusted, she goes back downstairs and calls him, wanting to know what’s going on.
Kate and Stuart used to be in a long-term relationship, but they’ve since broken up. Kate is angry and unhappy about it, and accuses Stuart of doing unspeakable things with some pickup. Stuart tells her that’s not the case; he found a rip in the space-time continuum, and by jumping off a certain spot on the Brooklyn Bridge, he was able to take a walk in 1876. The real kicker is that he met his great-great-great grandfather, who followed him home. Kate doesn’t buy any of this, and Stuart mumbles something about his old friend from college being in town for a Mac convention.
The next morning, Leopold wakes up on Stuart’s couch. He accidentally leans on a remote, which turns on the TV, which is playing a clip from The Prisoner. While Leopold is staring at this strangeness in disbelief, he also manages to switch on the stereo, which blasts out some metal. The noise wakes up Stuart, who immediately comes over and turns everything off.
Naturally, Leopold wants to know where he is, and insists that what he sees outside isn’t New York. “I’m afraid it is,” says Kate, who has come up to get her Palm Pilot (!). Meanwhile, Stuart has gone to walk his dog, but he doesn’t know the elevators are out, and steps into an empty shaft. While all of this is happening, Leopold tries to freshen up in Stuart’s bathroom, where he’s mystified by a Gilette razor and Barbisol shaving cream.
Kate comes back because Stuart forgot to give her the stylus for her Palm Pilot, and finds Bart outside in the hallway, his poor bladder unable to hold back. She sends Leopold out to walk Bart before she goes to work.
Work for Kate is at a research agency, where she gages people’s reactions to potential ads for different products. Her current client is Farmer’s Bounty Margarine, and they’re having trouble finding a spokesperson. Their only prospects have been labeled shifty, obnoxious and creepy. Speaking of creepy, Kate’s boss, J.J. (Bradley Whitford) is a little too attentive. When Kate spills coffee on her blouse, J.J. tells his secretary to have a new blouse sent over to Kate’s office. Barney’s. Small. And somehow exactly like her old one.
Leopold has even more culture shock in store for him, but he finds his footing pretty quickly. While Leopold is scrutinizing a Hungry Man dinner, Stuart calls him from the hospital, thinking he’ll be home soon (It takes him a week). Being an enterprising fellow, Leopold settles himself in his own way. He tells a little boy who watches TV with Stuart the story of Pirates of Penzance, which gets Kate’s actor brother, Charlie (Breckin Meyer) curious, and Kate comes home to find the three of them belting out “I Am the Very Model of A Modern Major General” on Stuart’s piano.
Charlie and Leopold become friends, and as far as Charlie is concerned, Leopold is a method actor. Kate’s not so sure, though. Charlie invites Leopold to dinner, and he and Kate watch him attempt to cut up Tater Tots and mystery meat. Kate is actually a little freaked out by Leopold because he stands when she leaves the table.
That’s not the only thing that bugs Kate. She’s a person who’s built up a lot of walls around herself–even her clothes are severe and no-frills. She’s used to guys like Stuart, who aren’t really there for her, and J.J., who’s a gallingly pretentious skirt-chaser. Whereas Leopold is dashing, debonair, well-read, and capable of whacking purse-snatchers with a leather strap. Naturally, one of Kate’s first honest questions to Leopold is, “Are you for real?”
It’s not such a funny thought, because artifice is Kate’s world. She talks Leopold into doing a TV spot for Farmer’s Bounty, only he says the stuff tastes like saddle soap. Kate knows it is, but she’s trying to get ahead, so she’s willing to put up with the lie. There’s a lot of softening that has to happen for her, and being with Leopold helps Kate see what she’s been missing.
If anything, Leopold shows everyone what’s missing from today’s discourse. When J.J. tries to date up Kate, Leopold warns him about using his staff as a meet market. When Charlie tries to barrel his way into starting a relationship with a girl he likes, Leopold tells him, “You should be pleasing her, not vexing her.” What a concept, right? Leopold isn’t a busybody, but he finds today’s mores absolutely foreign.
Back to the time-travel thing, which is still looming in the background, even though Leopold and Kate’s romance dominates the film. The suspense, of course, isn’t so much Leopold getting back to 1876, but whether or not Kate can shake off what makes her miserable and figure out what she really wants.
Unfortunately, this film has anacronisms and inaccuracies a-plenty. It’s gotten quite a bit of criticism for its logic leaps, as well as plot holes and historical errors. The real Duke of Albany was a son of Queen Victoria, a hemophiliac, and had a German accent, as German was the Windsors’ first language. What’s more, he never left England. Also, as IMDb points out, when Stuart and the Duke have their struggle on the scaffolding, there was water under Stuart, but for some reason he lands on terra firma when arriving in the present day. Another thing–Pirates of Penzance didn’t premiere in 1876 but in 1883. And those are just the non-science goofs.
Then there’s a sorta awkward angle of Kate, Stuart’s ex-girlfriend falling in love with Leopold, his great-great-great grandfather: Does this mean Stuart has been dating his own great-great-great grandmother? The theatrical release doesn’t go there explicitly, although in a deleted scene Charlie does broach the question during a cab ride. The filmmakers apparently thought they were doing audiences a favor by downplaying this bit of discomfort, but those who are into details will probably notice anyway. I hope I haven’t ruined anything for anyone, but this could have all been avoided by making sure Leopold and Stuart weren’t related in the first place.
Kate and Leopold is a different kind of film, but that’s not to its detriment. Sure, there could have been a little more attention to detail, but the romantic aspect of it is charming. I don’t know about anyone else, but I like it.