The unconventional bio-pic relates the life story of Leonie Gilmour, remembered today, if at all, for being the mother of famed sculptor and landscape designer Isamu Noguchi. Lushly photographed and featuring a stellar performance by the luminous Emily Mortimer in the title role, Hisako Matsui’s film is deeply heartfelt but only intermittently compelling.
The story begins in turn-of-the-century New York City, where the free-spirited Leonie takes on the assignment of editing the work of the talented Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (Shido Nakamura). Their successful professional collaboration soon becomes personal when they become lovers and she becomes pregnant with his child. But the news sends him fleeing to his native country, and she journeys to California to raise their son with the help of her mother (Mary Kay Place).
Yone eventually beckons them to join him in Japan. But after arriving, Leonie discovers that her role in his life is strictly subordinate and that he already has a Japanese wife as well. Making a meager living as an English teacher, she stays in the country anyway and devotes herself to making her son an artist. He soon fulfills that potential, designing a house for them to live in when he’s merely ten years old. They later return to the U.S., with the film ending just when Isamu begins to make a name for himself with his first solo exhibition.
The screenplay co-written by the director and David Weiner is frustratingly sketchy and at times overly florid, especially in its heavy doses of pseudo-poetic narration delivered by the older Leonie recounting her story. But it is also moving and inspirational in its portrait of a devoted mother’s passionate commitment to nurturing her son’s artistic talents.
That passion is fully conveyed by Mortimer, delivering a superb portrayal that fully showcases a talent and range that has too often been wasted in lesser roles (HBO’s being a notable exception). Nakamura and Place provide stellar support, although Christina Hendricks is wasted in an all-too-brief appearance as Leonie’s best friend.
A lengthy montage of many of Isamu Noguchi’s creations appears during the end credits, delivering vivid proof that Leonie’s efforts were not in vain.