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April 5, 2004 | by  | in Film |
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Mona Lisa Smile

The mid-1950s. The most conservative all-girls’ college in the United States. Enter a, quote, “bohemian” female art history lecturer with long hair, a bare ring finger and some less-than-popular convictions. Sound incongrous? Well, it is, but once if you can adequately suspend disbelief at the set-up – why would the character apply for a job like this, let alone actually get hired? – Mona Lisa Smile turns into an endearing, if somewhat flawed, little piece of escapism.

The phrase “Dead Poets Society for girls” has been bandied around in relation to this film. The comparison has some validity – like DPS, Mona Lisa Smile concerns an unconventional teacher, as popular with students as they are unpopular with the powers that be, challenging students to think outside the square. Conceptually, however, Mona Lisa deserves a little more credit. First of all, this movie deals with college, not high school, seniors – an important distinction, but even more saliently, while the two movies are set during the same period, DPS deals with boys and MLS, with girls. There weren’t a lot of options for women in their early 20s in the mid-50s. The characters in this film are expected to get a top quality education and then marry a boy with an equally top quality education so that he can have his shirts ironed by an intelligent wife. “After I graduate I plan to get married”, one student tells her lecturer. “And then what?”, the teacher demands. “And then I’ll… be married”, comes the somewhat confused reply. This is pre-women’s lib, pre-freely available contraception. And while in DPS Robin Williams encourages his students to imagine a future different to that dictated by their parents, in MLS Julia Roberts tries to convey the idea that there might be a future for her girls different to that dictated by the whole of society.

The key strength of this film lies in its cast. Julia Roberts is competent as ever, but she’s joined by an outstanding league of younger actresses. Kirsten Dunst makes for an excellent bitch, Julia Stiles brings a human balance to the character of that girl in your class whose perfection would have lead you to hate her had she not been so damned nice, and Maggie Gyllenhaall steals many a scene as the smart, sophisticated, seductive and – interestingly from a socio-political perspective – Jewish character. In supporting roles, Marcia Gay Harden and Juliet Stevenson are also stand-outs. Director Mike Newell, best known for helming Four Weddings and a Funeral, brings his usual fairy tale touch to the script. Filmed at Columbia University, the movie nonetheless cannily evokes the New England in which it is set, resplendant with ivy, crisp autumn leaves and fluffy winter snow.

However, this is where the film falls down. In his sentimentality, Newell shys away from fully exploring some of the movie’s more interesting issues. An affair between Julia Roberts’ character and one of her colleagues, absolutely superfluous to the plot, takes up an exasperating amount of screen time. Most frustratingly from the perspective of modern feminism, the concept of real choice for women gets completely glossed over. I could have stood and cheered when Julia Stiles’ character tells Julia Roberts that getting married was her choice over going to law school, that out of the options available to her she had simply taken that which was most appealing. “You don’t want these girls to make their own choices,” the boyfriend tells Julia Roberts in his only useful line of the film, “you want them to make your choices”. And then… nothing. This concept arrives too late in the film and goes precisely nowhere.

Despite this, and a couple of dubiously convenient reveals, I liked Mona Lisa Smile. The casting is superb, it’s really pretty to look at and throws up some interesting ideas, even if it doesn’t do a hell of a lot with them. If nothing else, this film could give you a new respect for your grandmother. Just don’t expect your life to be changed quite as easily as those of the student characters – the movie doesn’t do enough for that.

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