Mona Lisa Smile

Movie Review by Stephen Doyle

Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin

Director: Mike Newell

I was not looking forward to seeing this one – a film starring an abundance of female stars in a feminist tale set in a female university in the 1950’s, with a grammatically-suspect title which includes not one, but two female forenames – this had Hollywood chick flick written all over it. So I hoped, at the very least, it would be brief (1hour and 10 minutes, for example). It turned out to be a less appealing 2 hours.

As expected, MONA LISA SMILE quickly proved itself to be as wildly improbable as it was strictly formulaic, and about as subtle as a rampaging elephant to boot. What I had not expected, however, was it to be so irresistibly entertaining. For while MONA LISA SMILE (which plays like a female DEAD POETS SOCIETY) offers nothing new, it is very competently made. The filmmakers certainly know how to craft a film.

The year is 1953 and the free spirited Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is embarking on her first year as the professor of art history in the uptight and conservative atmosphere of the prestigious Wellesley Campus, New England. She teaches a class of rich kids who although capable of more, have their sights set on becoming housewives and mothers. This conflicts with Watson’s staunch feminist ideals and so she attempts to encourage her students to aim higher in life than society in the 1950’s expects them to.

The characters, although as obvious as the script and plot, are well done. We are treated to a glittering display of star power from Hollywood present (Roberts) and Hollywood future (Kirsten Durst, Julia Styles and Maggie Gyllenhaal all playing students). Highlights include a catty battle of wills between the conservative Betty Warren (Durst) and the free-spirited Watson, which forms the core of the film. Their verbal sparring is well written, exquisitely acted and very funny to watch. Gyllenhaal is superb as Giselle Levy, a voracious and funny, but mixed up, student. Marcia Gay Harden, however, steals the show from under everyone’s noses in a supporting role as Nancy Abbey, the speech, poise and elocution teacher. Her terrifically nuanced performance is funny in the first half before unexpectedly inspiring much pathos in the last act.

Unsurprisingly, the plot of MONA LISA SMILE is full of inconsistencies. For example, Betty Warren’s transformation from being a troublesome and vocal opponent of Watson’s feminist beliefs, to becoming Watson’s main advocate and protege occurs far too rapidly to be convincing. Also, I could not help wondering why, if Watson is meant to be such an independent-minded feminist, she embarks on an affair with the school Lothario, the Italian teacher Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), who has a string of affairs, with students and teachers alike, behind him.

MONA LISA SMILE is a predictable offering, with some predictable faults. But as I mentioned before, it is very competently made, and a plethora of nicely realised characters and sub-plots mean this is an entertaining and diverting, sometimes even charming, way to spend two hours.

4 out of 6 stars

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