|Mona Lisa Smile|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 09 March 2004|
Mona Lisa Smile is an agreeable “chick flick” drama that is highly watchable, despite a certain predictability. In the early ‘70s, this movie would actually have been groundbreaking. Now it feels like a TV drama that got lucky with a big-name cast and strong production values, but it flows easily and even intelligently over the course of a semester at Wellesley University circa 1953.
Julia Roberts stars as Katherine Watson, a “free-thinking” teacher who arrives at Wellesley College from California to give a course in art history. Katherine immediately comes up with snobbishness against her modest financial background, skepticism from other teachers over her methods and mild rebellion from her students, who find her at first too tame and then alarmingly challenging. Katherine, in turn, is by turns daunted by how much they know, determined to get them to open their minds and sometimes appalled when they pass up what she sees as crucial opportunities.
The screenplay by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal weaves many different subplots together into a thematic (if also somewhat schematic) whole, with Katherine’s integrity/stubbornness touching on the lives of the conservative and judgmental Betty (Kirsten Dunst), sexually promiscuous Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), brainy but cautious Joan (Julia Stiles) and dying-to-be-popular Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) all having different reactions to Katherine’s example of life as an unmarried professional woman while trying to manage their ambitions and love lives. Katherine, meanwhile, struggles to find a balance between doing what she feels is right, being sensitive to what the girls want to hear and surviving the scrutiny of the forces around her. The movie also waffles a little bit on Katherine – she reacts to the confines of Wellesley with a little too much naïve discomfort, as though she’s come from a future time instead of another state. We get the sense that Katherine shares our contemporary reactions to the repressive society she encounters; it’s never clear exactly what she was accustomed to before arriving at the college. (Surely attitudes about women in 1953 were not radically different in California than in Massachusetts?) Even so, the storyline flows along and the performances are compelling across the board, with Stiles a particular standout as a young woman who appreciates Katherine’s independence but lacks the heart to emulate her.
The writers and director Mike Newell actually manage to make the film’s central metaphor – the notion that one’s concept of art and one’s concept of a full life are both largely subjective and not something that should or can be dictated by others – work without seeming overly heavy-handed. The relatively large amount of central characters allows Mona Lisa Smile to explore its subject matter with a variety (albeit not hugely diverse) of points of view and outcomes. Newell makes the most of Jane Musky’s well-researched production design and gives the film a lush, expensive look.
The DVD’s hues are rich and images rarely bleed, even when it’s something tricky like lights on a Christmas tree. There aren’t any real standout moments aurally, though the mix has some nice subtle elements, like rainfall in the rears in Chapter 13. Chapter 14 has some especially realistic-sounding coffee percolating in the background, while Chapter 15 has some good, unobtrusive jazz playing softly in the rears while the main characters talking in the mains during a club scene. In Chapter 23, the orchestrations are a bit booming behind a smooth-voiced singer. Elton John contributes a new pop tune, “The Heart of Every Girl,” which sounds better in the extras section music video than it does over the closing credits, and Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “Smile” covers the rest of the end titles when John’s number concludes.
The extras section is rather sparse, with the aforementioned music video, three featurettes that combine actor interviews, behind the scenes footage and historical perspective, and a filmographies section.
Mona Lisa Smile is a bit like Art History 101, 1950s American Women’s History 102. It’s not comprehensive, but as an introduction to the topic, it’s informative and reasonably entertaining.