Monday, 27 April 2009

Movie Review - Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa Smile is a thoughtful treatment of the subject of both female identity and the history of art. Now if that isn’t enough to scare the pants off macho action film fans then I don’t know what is, but it’s a good film in its own right. While obviously it will appeal far more to women (let’s face it, men don’t tend to want to watch two hours of different women being miserable to different extents, which is basically what most of this sort of film are), it does offer enough food for thought that some men will certainly find it interesting too. (Just don’t tell me that this is “getting in touch with my feminine side” - as if the gentler qualities are the sole domain of women - or I’ll get all loutish on you. Oh hang on, there are probably more female than male louts nowadays… Interesting side-note - women criticise men’s behaviour, gain more independence, and proceed to copy aforementioned behaviour…)


Julia Roberts stars as Katherine Ann Watsona teacher who “wants to make a difference”. Logically since she is “progressive”, the place to do this would be somewhere so institutionalised that they’ll never listen to her anyway. (That’s female logic for you…) Needless to say, as a whole she fails.

But she does have a profound impact on her class. Using her subject, the history of art, and the question of what exactly constitutes art, she tries to make her statements about women not needing to be tied to their traditional roles, or at least the worthy notion that they should choose their role for themselves rather than just do what’s expected of them by society. Her argumentation is generally a bit obvious (not that she doesn’t make valid points all the same) with occasional clever abstract thoughts thrown in almost as an afterthought. From day one it’s clear that the schoolmasters are against her, and she finds out early on that she’s an unwelcome intruder who is only there because there was no-one else available.

The girls in her class don’t exactly give her an easy time either. Primarily the focus is on four girls - Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin). Like pretty much all of the characters in this film, they’re basically two-dimensional - Betty is an extremely nasty person obsessed with getting married, Connie is a frump, and Giselle is a slut. Only Joan has any real depth to her character, and ends up telling Katherine a few home truths. In fact Stiles’ performance was the one that impressed me the most, especially as I would have envisaged her in Dunst’s role and vice-versa. (kay, so the only thing I remember having seen her in is “Ten Things I Hate About You”, which probably coloured my opinion of her.) Stiles excels but all four actresses put in good performances. Roberts of course proved in Erin Brockervick that she can play the extremely determined, not necessarily very nice character very well indeed. Her character in Mona Lisa Smile isn’t a world apart, though is a bit softer most of the time. There was a good supporting cast (foremost of which is Juliet Stephenson, though sadly she didn’t have much screen time). Marcia Gay Harden was also in top form as Nancy Abbey (who was spookily similar to a Stepford Wife. Unfortunately the script threw in a couple of things that simply didn’t make sense, and no matter how good the acting was, they couldn’t stop it from jarring. It didn’t help at all that there was some bad editing in places, with one scene cutting off apparently right in the middle. Humour is added to the mix somewhat sparingly, but it’s the right amount for the thoughtful tone the film aims for (and for the most part succeeds in reaching).

In a couple of films I’ve reviewed previously I’ve mentioned the fact that the female characters were underused. In this film it’s the male characters - not that there are many of them. As usual everything they do wrong is emblazoned on the screen in big letters while any good points they have or mistreatment from (shock horror) women in the film is minimised. Dominic West does the best he can with a bad part but really the whole sequence of events where he and Katherine are dating completely fails to make sense.

You might think from what I’ve written so far that I hated the film, but this isn’t he case. There are redeeming features other than some fine acting. With so many films like this - that explore a subject or (shudder) contain a message, things are presented in black and white - i.e. ecology GOOD, industry BAD. Mona Lisa Smile, while failing to fully develop any of its characters, at least fully develops its scenario. We are not presented with scenes of girls obviously oppressed and miserable, jumping with joy when the light is presented to them by their teacher; we see most of them scathingly reject the new ideas presented to them (at least initially), scenes of joyous abandon and crazy fun being had by the girls (it’s quite frightening what they get up to when there’s no men around to control them), and some of them slowly beginning to appreciate what Katherine is trying to tell them. Even when one of the girls fully embraces the idea, she decides that what she really wants is a family - and that believing old values and ambitions are intrinsically wrong is just as blinkered a viewpoint as trying to prevent progressive ideas from taking root. Neither the old or new values were presented as thoroughly good or thoroughly bad - as with most things in life, the best option is found somewhere between the two extremes.

Overall, this film is a curious mix of good and bad: good plot premise, sloppy script; detailed development of scenario, poor characterisation; good balance of argumentation, unsatisfactory ending. Overall I think the good outweighs the bad, but not by enough to give it more than 3 stars and a recommendation because yes, it is worth seeing for the good bits. Will women enjoy it more? This may be the case, particularly those old enough to remember the times represented in the film - it could strike a real cord in them.

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