MONA LISA SMILE
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) leaves a boyfriend and California for the staid New England campus of America’s most uppity, bright young women’s college, Wellesley, to teach art history to the class of ‘53. The tradition bound campus isn’t ready for Katherine’s independent spirit, still awash in a male dominated era when women cook dinner for hubby by 5. Husbands are the main prize, not a brilliant career. Watson’s challenge backfires, and she has to confront her motives for wanting to liberate the girls in her class.
Review by Louise Keller:
A highly enjoyable story about finding your place in life, Mona Lisa Smile explores the subtext and the real emotions that churn below the glossy surface. Set in the 50s, at a time when women aspired to marriage and the marvels of a washing machine, Julia Roberts’ protagonist Katherine raises questions and eyebrows, as she sets out to make a difference. Mike Newell’s adept touch nurtures the material and takes us on a satisfying journey in which we learn that happiness is different things to different people.
Ah yes, the mystifying and enigmatic smile of Leonardo’s most famous lady on canvass has inspired songs, sonnets and discussion; what dark secrets lie behind the illusion of contentment? Just as the façade to maintain appearances was maintained in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, Mona Lisa Smile tackles a similar issue.
And with the world’s most bankable movie star in the driver’s seat, flashing her dimpled smile that totally illuminates the screen, we are in good hands. Roberts wins our hearts by displaying great vulnerability – her face is so transparent: we feel every emotion that she feels. But there is more than one dimpled smile to watch for, there’s an outstanding female cast portraying characters whose stories and relationships we keenly follow.
Kirsten Dunst’s Betty believes that life as promised by her snobbish mother, is just a matter of getting married and living happily ever after. When the bubble in her perfect world bursts, her frustration and devastation are channelled destructively, making sure that if she can’t be happy, then no one else will be either. I especially enjoyed Julia Stiles’ Joan, who finally discovers her heart’s true desire; Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sexually progressive Giselle is simply superb and Ginnifer Goodwin’s Connie takes us on an emotional up and down staircase, as she discovers the pitfalls of love.
Marcia Gay Harden’s emotionally barren teacher of poise and elocution steals many a scene, teaching students how to cross their legs, and the scene when she unravels in the company of the barman and a Manhattan is especially memorable. Dominic West makes an appealing leading man, and it’s refreshing that the story doesn’t take us where we think it will lead. Rachel Portman’s distinctive music has a light touch and there’s a terrific combo of tunes from the era, including Barbra Streisand’s rendition of the Charlie Chaplin song Smile. Just like the painting, the film is lovely to look at, but it’s the emotions behind the smile that have the most appeal.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Mona Lisa Smile has Chaplin’s Smile sung by Barbra Streisand over the end credits in one of my least favourite arrangements of the song, over-worked and slowed to a funereal, maudlin, faux-poignant beat. That, and the too-clever use of the song title in the film title symbolises the flaws in the film, which override its many achievements; the underlying theme, or melody, is interesting, but the treatment, or arrangement, is not.
The Smile and Mona Lisa references point out the film’s concern with what is beneath appearances. Is that a real smile….? But the story vehicle (set in the early 50s) is a throwback to the old feminist arguments of the 70s, with nothing new to say. Never mind that, old truths can be refreshed by new angles, sparkling dialogue, edgy direction, snappy editing, great story, cool music and terrific performances.
Mona Lisa Smile manages to tick just one of these boxes: the latter. Indeed, the performances are so good I almost like the film. This is a fabulous line up of female acting prowess, and Julia Roberts is but one of the ensemble of character actors like Kirsten Dunst, Julia Styles, Maggie Gylenhaal, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, Ginnifer Goodwin. Nobody stands out ‘above’ this particularly splendid crowd. The few men involved don’t fare well, but that’s the script’s downfall, not theirs. The film’s failure to enunciate time, the haphazard storytelling and the trite dialogue breeds ennui not energy. It ends up feeling like a forced smile.
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MONA LISA SMILE (PG)
CAST: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Styles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Topher Grace, John Slattery and Marcia Gay Harden.
PRODUCER: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff
DIRECTOR: Mike Newell
SCRIPT: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Anastas Michos
EDITOR: Mick Audsley
MUSIC: Rachel Portman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jane Musky
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Col TriStar
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 19, 2004
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 11, 2002
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Col TriStar Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: August 18, 2004