Review by: Jack Foley | Rating:
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 'Art Forum' featurette; 'College:
Then and Now' featurette; 'What Women Wanted In 1953' featurette;
Filmographies. Elton John Music Video 'The Heart of Every Girl';
IT IS always lamentable when a film which sets out to show how
an individual can inspire a group of people to rise above conformity
ends up falling victim to the same sort of uninspiring conformity
Mona Lisa Smile is exactly that type of movie, one which falls
prey to just about every sort of cliché imaginable, before
arriving at its equally predictable conclusion.
Julia Roberts leads a top drawer female cast as revolutionary
art history teacher, Katherine Watson, who arrives at the staid
Wellesely College, in 1953, determined to make a big impression.
But attempts to provide her intelligent students with a broader
outlook on life than merely finding themselves a husband are consistently
undermined by the pupils themselves, who initially object to the
change, and from the college hierarchy, who oppose such forward-thinking.
Billed as a film which combines a quaint pedagogical tale
with a feminist dissection of traditional female roles in 1950s
society, Mona Lisa Smile instead fails to rise above the
Dead Poets Society for women tag bestowed upon it,
While certainly boasting an impressive cast, including Maggie
Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles, as students, as well
as Marcia Gay Harden, as a fellow teacher, the film continually
squanders its potential by sticking so rigidly to formula.
You can practically guess the story arcs for each character from
the moment you lay eyes upon them, while the script doesnt
even have the good grace to give them anywhere to run with things.
Hence, Dunsts uptight society lady remains bitchy
and unsympathetic right up until the moment she is required to
learn her life lesson, while Gyllenhaals free-thinking,
bisexual rebel is the breath of fresh air that Roberts requires
to make a stand for her pupils.
Roberts, too, plays defiant and feisty, much as she did in Pretty
Woman, despite the fact that this film allows her to mature, gracefully,
into a more appropriate role-play.
Her relationship with Dominic Wests typically randy Italian
teacher lacks chemistry, while her supposedly inspiring lessons,
which seek to replace the recommended classic curriculum with
modern art appreciation, lack the charisma needed to be truly
Director, Mike Newell, also fails to provide anything to help
his women rise above the stereotypes, appearing content to let
the movie unfold at a leisurely, albeit picturesque pace, which
conforms to just about every plot contrivance imaginable, while
also remaining tremendously straight-laced.
This is an old-fashioned historical drama which professes to
be forward-thinking and inspirational, but which insists on telling
its tale in a traditional and backward-looking fashion.
As such, it loses credibility from the outset, and becomes an
onerous journey for anyone who has seen this sort of thing countless
The stars may draw the audiences but few will be smiling at the
obvious picture these artists paint afterwards.