Kate & Leopold belongs to a unique class of American films and television series that were produced before September 11, but released after it. By pre-empting the needs of the post-9/11 world in such an acute way, these texts uncannily remind you how much American culture had itself already premediated the catastrophe at the World Trade Centre. At the same time, Kate & Leopold feels like a pivotal release in the decline of the 90s feel-good mode on the cusp of the new millennium – a cinematic bookend to the long 90s that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not only does it fuse historical drama with romantic comedy, as if going for a summative feel-good hybrid (or as one character puts it, “a beautiful 4D pretzel of kismetic inevitability”) but it was the last classic romcom from Meg Ryan, a full stop on a golden age that stretched through When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. As the title suggests, it revolves around two characters – Kate, an upwardly mobile Manhattan professional, played by Ryan, and Leopold, a nineteenth-century gentleman played by Hugh Jackman. Stuart, Kate’s ex-boyfriend, played by Liev Schreiber, is both Leopold’s great-great-grandson, and an amateur physicist. When he discovers a time portal, he brings Leopold to the present, and to Kate’s life, which is transformed beyond recognition.
Released a couple of month after September 11, this romantic-historical premise plays out against a robust and ebullient tribute to a city that has survived. In the period directly after the attack on the World Trade Centre, Hollywood couldn’t bring itself to linger on the verticality of New York, or of any American cities – the very prospect of skyscrapers was traumatic until the Marvel Revolution arrived to rein them into the superhero’s gaze. However, Kate & Leopold reaches back to an older and sturdier vertical cityscape, by presenting Leopold as the inventor of the elevator. This produces a more rigorous sense of national security too, while subsuming the romantic comedy into a deeper vein of American romanticism. Stuart first makes contact with Leopold in 1876, the centenary year, and discovers that the time portal exists just below the Brooklyn Bridge, evoking a fusion of bridge and elevator that harkens back to Hart Crane’s paean “To Brooklyn Bridge,” which set the monumental structure before an urban backdrop in which “elevators drop us from our day.”
The vertical city is thus displaced from the present in Kate & Leopold, retrojected into the ancient invention of the elevator, but also propelled into the futurism of the time portal, which quickly feels like the latest addition to New York mass transit. Stuart discovers that it’s not enough to move through this portal either – one has to tumble through it, at the speed of gravity, from a great height, with the same sense of freefall that comes with a descending elevator, but also uncannily pre-empting and containing the trauma of the September 11 falling man. Concomitantly, the portal causes elevators to mysteriously malfunction across the city, like pockets of spacetime discontinua, again pre-empting) one of the most haunting images of September 11 – elevators either tumbling through empty space or locked in space – and infusing it with a more picaresque flavour. Not only does Stuart step into an empty elevator shaft immediately after returning through the portal, but we first meet Kate, apprehending Leopold’s distant presence, through a disruption in a neighbouring elevator.
When Leopold does arrive, and shacks up with Stuart, this redemptive vertical narrative translates into a cosy vertical domesticity. Stuart lives directly above Kate, while neighbourliness seems to occur along a vertical rather than horizontal continuum in their apartment complex. People are continually popping up and down fire escapes, producing a quirky sitcom vibe, especially since the first two acts of the film barely leave this building. Adding to that sitcom element is the way in which Leopold quickly becomes a fantasy placeholder, which frees up the rest of the screenplay to be remarkably relaxed and airy. Leopold isn’t even really a character, just a way of calibrating and contouring other characters.
More specifically, Leopold plays as the last burst of gentlemanly fantasy before the dating market was deregulated by online hook-ups. This means the end of a certain kind of melancholy isolation in the big city, epitomised by one of the best scenes in the film, in which Kate and Leopold watch a single man in an apartment across the street. Kate explains to Leopold that this man, who she has never met, lives alone, and plays Breakfast at Tiffany’s each night before going to bed. As “Moon River” wafts up through the traffic, a second-order sadness settles over the film – to be sure, the sadness of the man’s isolation, but also Kate’s stranger sadness that this isolation, and the romantic fantasies that it spawned, might also soon be a thing of the past. After all, you can’t have romcoms without this kind of physical romantic isolation – it’s probably the main venue from which romcoms were consumed – and so this sequence feels like an elegy for the genre on the cusp of the digital era. Once upon a time, Kate seems to tell Leopold, in a 90s that feels even more distant than the nineteenth-century, people experienced isolation in real space and time, yearning in real space and time, and a fantasy that was commensurate to those two feelings – a fantasy that has now become precarious enough to produce a rupture in the spacetime continuum of the romcom itself.
In that context, Leopold plays as the manifesto for a new marketing movement – a new sincerity capable of tackling the demands of a digitised world. He doesn’t just represent a new sincerity in marketing, but is also marketed for his sincerity, becoming the spokesman that Kate’s company has been searching for to advertise their new fat-free butter, Farmer’s Bounty. Above and beyond this particular product, though, it’s not hard to see Leopold as marketing a particular brand of gentlemanly energy for the online dating era – the gentleman code, a way of maintaining chivalric values in a world that seems to be proliferating beyond them. Kate & Leopold thus often reminded me of The Perfect Man, an underrated romcom that came out four years later, at a later stage of this gentlemanly evolution. The Perfect Man revolves around a mother-daughter pairing, played by Heather Locklear and Hilary Duff, who are always moving from place to place. In order to get her mother to settle down, Duff’s character invents a fictional love interest, with the advice and guidance of a local restauranteur, played by Chris Noth, who eventually blossoms into a real love interest. Like Kate & Leopold, The Perfect Man deals with a love interest who is both a placeholder for fantasy and a gentlemanly guru – a strategy, in other words, that the film uses to maintain the chivalric elements of the romcom in an era when dating has become far more functional.
For all those reasons, Leopold starts to segue from a time traveller to merely “old-fashioned”, gentlemanly rather than a gentleman per se. We see this transition play out around Central Park, which Leopold initially treats as a grand old nineteenth-century space, by chasing down a mugger crossfield on horseback, and discoursing at length on the art of floriology. Yet this soon morphs into a more generic, contemporary, “romantic” register, in which Leopold simply presents Kate with flowers, and takes her on the tamest of horse-and-buggy rides round the park perimeter. Conversely, Kate doesn’t initially want to literally travel back in time, but does come to long for the affects and rhythms of the centenary year – “I want more of this, more 1876” – especially as they restore the city as a vertical space, and invest elevators (along with the skyscrapers that hug around them) with an old-fashioned sense of security. This vertical courtship culminates with the first foray onto the roof of Kate’s own building, where Leopold declares his love by arranging a formal dinner decked out with candles, violinist and table service. Drawing on the same vertical metaphor, Kate confesses she finds it difficult to “leap,” while for a moment it looks like Leopold might remain in the present as he nails his own biggest vertical conundrum in the following scene – mastering the toaster so that the bread pops up before it is entirely burned, as occurs over and over in the first act.
The tensions of the film thus converge around Leopold’s gradual acclimatisation to the present, and Kate’s gradual acclimatisation fo the past – and the two come together in and around Kate’s work, where what Leopold represents reaches a kind of incongruency point. On the one hand, Leopold softens Kate’s toxic boss; on the other hand, he decides to return to the nineteenth-century at the very moment that Kate receives a major promotion. To follow him, and achieve her romantic dream, she has to commit career suicide, producing an ending that encapsulates all the contradictions of the upwardly mobile romcom as it stood at the brink of the millennium. In the midst of accepting her promotion, she sees her own image staring out of the back of a nineteenth-century photograph, in a late romcom echo of The Shining, while the ceremony coincides with the short window during which the time portal opens and closes. She’s upstairs at the ceremony when she makes the connection, and is called downstairs a moment later, but has to prepare herself for an even more drastic descent, over the East River. As she tumbles down the staircase, and then on and off the stage, the whole film starts sliding towards the time portal, anxious to reach it before all these immaculate vertical structures crumble to the ground – and while we just make it, the lingering effect is almost one of unease, of a crisis only narrowly averted, a catastrophe only postponed, in a reflexive comment on the power of escaping into historical fantasy, along with how quickly this particular fantasy would come to feel historic, a weird symptom of ’01.