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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.

The conservative rules and regulations of the 1950s are canvassed in a DVD featurette in the days when women were pressured to put on a happy face, as they took on the role of homemaker, wife and mother. Footage from the film is intercut with black and white documentary footage and interviews with the cast. 'Researchers put together briefs to work out the jobs that women could do: you could be a teacher, a secretary or a nurse,' says director Mike Newell.

There's a featurette looking at College Then And Now, which raises some interesting statistics like in 1953, 24% of college-aged women engaged in pre-marital sexual activity, as opposed to 95% today. Art Forum is a behind-the-scenes feature that focuses on art: we hear what arts means to Kristen Dunst, Julia Stiles and cast members and you can watch a dapper-looking Elton John at the grand piano singing 'The Heart of Every Girl'.

Published August 19, 2004

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CAST: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Styles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Topher Grace, John Slattery and Marcia Gay Harden.

DIRECTOR: Mike Newell

SCRIPT: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal\

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen (1.85:1/16:9 enhanced)

SPECIAL FEATURES: What Women Wanted; Art Forum & College - Then and Now behind the scenes featurettes; music video (Elton John); talent profiles; trailer; bonus trailers


DVD RELEASE: August 18, 2004

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