Once upon a time in 1876, Duke Leopold Mountbatten of Albany falls through a natural window in the fabric of time and travels a hundred and twenty four years ahead to fall in love with a 21st century Kate MacKay and live with her happily ever after.
For fans of the fantasy romance – comedy genre, Kate & Leopold (by director James Mangold of The Wolverine fame) is the forerunner of Enchanted and The Age of Adaline as well as the precipitator of the Americana obsession and call of ‘Back to Tradition’. Movie reviewers, while scrutiny, emphasized on the comedy, acting, predictable plot and music, and mostly dismissed it off as another adulated fairytale made in a today where honoring timeless traditions is an extinct notion. True, the fantasy is in the theme of ‘Duke’ Charming (justice pending in the description of a gorgeous Jackman) coming to the rescue of the damsel in distress (Ryan’s mid – life crisis), surpassing centuries (and generations!) by time travel; but what if we place the concept of time travelling in a different context?
The magic in Kate & Leopold lies not in the love story of two people separated by centuries, but in the bittersweet manner in which, through the characters, two distinct epochs perceive each other, driven by micro self – certitude and macro socio – cultural expectations. It is a metaphor for the everyday people who travel to see the ‘new’ and come homebound, enriched with experience derived from the non – uniformity of the adventure. The movie beautifully empowers not only the Present (as usual) to judge the Past, but also for the latter to pronounce its verdict on the former. We taste modernity at the collapse of tradition; in fact, both are omnipresent locked in a fray. Mangold turns the table for us as he juxtaposes the two major tenses in the grammar book, stubbornly placing an irrefutable Privy Seal on the realization that Time, however dynamic it pretends to be, harps a monopolized tune – “… When all you know seems so far away / And everything is temporary, rest your head / I’m permanent.”
Kate’s character embodies the Present – she is the modern 21st century “career woman”, adamant in her independence and independent in her behavioral enterprises. The dominant truth of her life is “the whole love thing is just a grown up version of Santa Claus…fed since childhood.” Unsurprisingly a string of failed relationships has left her cynic enough to “make pathetic attempts to explain why [her] Love Santa keeps getting caught in the chimney”. The chivalric Leopold’s entry in her life provokes a dual reactions in her – an external repulsion toward his hypocritical conventionalism and the internal irresistible fascination with the etiquette of a “psychotic escapee from a Renaissance faire.” The very existence of a “Sergeant Pepper” who reflexively stands for ladies approaching a table, asks for a multiple course meal that is a “study of reflection and study” and pursues rogues with training from the King’s Academy; and her unwilling duende at his flag of conventionalism compels her to act jerry – rigged toward him. In her head and mouth, she shouts “Stop Please? I beg you, I ‘m tired. Can you go away?” He, simply by the virtue of his disciplined code of fellow consideration, breaks the impersonal and harsh ideals that the outside world had molded into her, re – acquainting her with the luxury of the lost treasures of traditional mannerism. Throughout the visual narration, she is seen a confused individual, struggling to interpret the alien language of antiquity and understand her own transfixion at the charming values that are now dying embers in the hearth of the sand – clock. At this juncture, the screen engulfs the real life audience – after all, we are fellow travelers of the “time – space continuum”! With her, we are bound to put our hands on our heads, pondering the importance of the past in our lives and why, despite all our tall talks of advancement and ‘new laws of motion’, we cling to the one thing that supposedly hinders furtherance.
Kate is not the only Present in the movie who is awed by the Past. Her brother, Charlie; his girlfriend, Patrice; Kate’s boss, J.J. and other minor characters of the Present are all baffled into believing that custom and tradition smoothens more the wading in the turgid waters of social interaction, than formal approach. However as modernism can’t sweep away tradition, so can’t the latter oust the former. Tradition is not always welcome – Kate looks down upon Leopold as a parasitic aristocrat who “never had to work a day in [his] life” (the typical American scorn for birth – privileges) and J.J. scorns at Leopold’s flamboyancy of Victorian culture. Whether it’s singing geriatric ballads with a piano, or choosing bouquets by the meaning of flower color, they take to Leopold’s ways, basking in the feeling of heritage rippling through their sentiments, without attaching meaning to the acts. He is the “method actor” who serves to magnify the obsession they have with the Past – and satisfy the rubric void they have toiled to fill in by naming snacks ‘Pirate Booty’, conducting pilgrimages to operas and filming commercials of Victorian nobles praising “saddle – soap” diet butter. Consequently, at the end of the movie, they retreat to the fated Present, sending him back to his ‘Golden Age’ and shelving the customary deference for weddings and Christmases.
Leopold, from the beginning, appears as a man of Enlightenment, speaking of “progress and invention” – words of illusion against the reality of an advantageous marriage to escape impoverishment. His accidental advent in the 21st century releases him from his stifling reality, giving him his wonderland: of Mad Hatters of accomplishments, of Red Queens in trousers and research and Tweedledee’s talking telegraph. He also encounters its negativity – its religion of “peddling pond scum to unsuspecting public” and vexing laws of “inappropriate” courtship, but learns in the process that the dance card of the world, regardless of the hour, is to act circumstantially, even so against better judgment. He is intrigued by Kate; more so by her philosophy of love for he hailed from a time where “love is a leap” and true to his noble upbringing, uses his courtesy to bring back the ‘Katherine’ who believed in marriage for charm. His viewpoint is that of a world in the remote past, imbibing conservatism, scorning radicalism yet responding to the imperative of kiesmatic modernity. Interestingly, he departs from the Present to the Past and remedies the issues he had been fleeing from with the balm of Gilead that the Present awarded him.
It is of concern to mention here that the tale abounds in instances where the Present and Past come to direct combat and the latter successfully reinforces itself in the frayed scenario. For, example, as Leopold travels to the 21st century, elevators stop in response to this supernatural malfunctioning. Nevertheless, on a closer inspection, the elevators, which are a representative of the times modern stop due to intervention of tradition. Pretty much the same way Kate‘s conviction that one “can’t live in a fairytale” stops and she vanishes to 1876 to be with her ‘obsolete’ better – half. The disregard for the Past makes the Present casually comment at Roebling’s monumentation of the American “culture in perpetuity” .i.e., the John .A. Roebling Suspension Bridge as a mere “bridge”, though it continues to stand as the representative of bygone values. Leopold surrenders to the romantic concept of marriage for charm, flouting his earlier consideration of the modern monetary matrimony. The Present ridicules Leopold’s old – fashioned attire, dismissing it as an actor’s outfit, yet exploits the ‘power’ of the attire to appeal to the public predilection for tradition. The treatment that Leopold suffers throughout the movie from the Present, who judges him by face value, is exactly the ‘sacrilegious’ treatment meted out to tradition in the modern world. The more the Present(s) take up the patience to understand him, the more the importance of the Past gets comprehensive in mentality. At the very end, Kate’s choice of living in 1876 can somehow be interpreted as the audience’s accommodation of the traditional Past in a modern Present mindset and reliving the experience of customary sanctity. The seduction of the Present and Future might be potent, yet anything that resembles tradition has an indurate foothold of unabated influence!
So, what is the crux call? Back to the Past that offers tradition? Or forward to the Present that offers modernity and flight to the future? But wouldn’t it be more convenient to stay rooted to the present timeline (as if we have an option to rewind the clock!) and gaily surrender to our inner hunger of the food which only the past is well equipped to provide? The whole point is not about pushing tradition to the verge of oblivion, but re-interpreting it, in all its grandeur, to suit modern conveniences and cinch its ‘existential continuity’. This is something we do unconsciously every day. We depend on pizzas to get us to work on time in weekdays, but we reach out for baked turkey to delay guests from leaving a wedding party early and complaining about ‘inadequate’ hospitality. It’s like if we are standing on the bob of Grandfather Time…we ‘d rather that we get compulsively stuck (momentarily) in the 3’o clock of traditional Past before oscillating (peremptorily!) to the 9’o clock of the modern Present and its twin…the Future. And then, we, who are all “detained in the present hereafter”, are left to echo Kate’s craving – “I want more of this. More 1876.”