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Mona Lisa Smile (12A)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: One

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'; Theatrical trailer.

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 itself.

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 filming.

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 doesn’t even have the good grace to give them anywhere to run with things.

Hence, Dunst’s uptight society lady remains ‘bitchy’ and unsympathetic right up until the moment she is required to learn her life lesson, while Gyllenhaal’s 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 West’s 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 affecting.

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 times before.

The stars may draw the audiences but few will be smiling at the obvious picture these artists paint afterwards.

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