Dir: James Mangold. US. 2001. 120mins

So here's the pitch: a 19th-century English duke gets caught up in a time warp and is transported from New York in 1876 to 2001 where he meets a high-powered career woman. After much comedy derived from the differences between the two, they fall in love. In Hollywood, that's what's known as a high concept, and Kate & Leopold, the film which was made from that pitch, creaks under the weight of its own contrivance. Film-maker James Mangold makes a concerted effort to make it work through sheer force of charm. He even hired Meg Ryan to star as Kate, but you can't force charm without the deft writing and characterisation of some of Ryan's earlier romantic comedies. It's more Addicted To Love than When Harry Met Sally.

At the box office, on the other hand, it smells like a hit - continuing a divergence between merit and commercial success which has been a trademark of mainstream cinema this year. Miramax Films, which financed and is distributing it in the US at Christmas, has come up with an enticingly breezy campaign; it's also the only romantic comedy in a marketplace of wizard epics and prestige pictures. In international territories, where Miramax has sold it to independents, it should have the same impact.

The film starts in 1876 with Leopold, the handsome third Duke of Albany (Jackman), gazing with wonder at the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Looking through the crowd, however, he sees a peculiarly dressed man taking photographs. This is Stuart (Schrieber), a scientist from the 21st century who has found a rip in time and travelled back from 2001. Leopold chases him but Stuart escapes.

That night, Leopold is scheduled to choose his wife at a dance in his honour, although he is not in love with any of the prospective rich ladies on offer. During the dance, he again sees Stuart and chases him to the bridge where both of them are hurtled forward to 2001 through the mysterious portal in time. In 2001, Stuart lives above his ex-girlfriend Kate McKay (Ryan), a successful market research executive who has given up on finding true love and her actor brother Charlie (Meyer). As soon as Stuart and Leopold arrive from the past, a disbelieving Kate discovers them and Charlie befriends Leopold.

The following day Stuart falls down an elevator shaft, leaving Kate and Charlie with Leopold. Impressed by his eloquence and looks, she decides to use him as the spokesman for a margarine commercial. But as they spend more time together, Kate and Leopold find themselves increasingly attracted to each other. With a looming deadline for Leopold to return to 1876, Kate must decide between her career in the 21st century and true love in the 19th.

This is the first comedy from Mangold, who co-wrote the script with Steven Rogers, and he fails to establish a consistent tone veering from gentle fish out of water humour to incongruous slapstick (Schrieber's incarceration in a mental hospital is a low-point). Furthermore, the loopholes in the plot will have many an audience member tutting at the loose ends left hanging.

Ryan seems ill at ease - and a little over-the-hill - in her role as the embittered singleton, although her natural screen presence keeps her watchable; Jackman is winning as the debonair romantic Leopold, again exhibiting the charisma that one of these days will vault him to the top ranks of Hollywood heartthrobs.

Prod co: Konrad Pictures, Miramax Films
US dist: Miramax Films
Int'l sales: Miramax International
Exec prods: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster, Kerry Orent
Prod: Cathy Konrad
Scr: James Mangold & Steven Rogers, from a story by Rogers
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Prod des: Mark Friedberg
Ed: David Brenner
Mus: Rolfe Kent
Main cast: Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schrieber, Breckin Meyer, Natasha Lyonne, Bradley Whitford, Philip Bosco