Mona Lisa Smile is set in 1953 in Wellesley, a very upscale college for young women of some means

Like in Mona Lisa Smile, College students of today would be aghast looking at the curriculum which included such classes as deportment, manners, grooming and even how to place tableware

At this stage in my life I am the father to a 19 year old daughter. Often as we chat I notice that she is amazed at how life was handled back in those olden times when I was growing up. These conversations came to mind while watching Mona Lisa Smile. Sure it meets every accepted definition of a ‘chick flick’ but there is more to it, there are aspects that cut right to the heart of one of the main purposes of cinema, the recreation of other times and places. Mona Lisa Smile is set in 1953 in Wellesley, a very upscale college for young women of some means. College students of today, like my daughter, would be aghast looking at the curriculum which included such classes as deportment, manners, grooming and even how to place tableware. Back then that was the training a young woman required for life, how to be a wife, hostess and mother. There is a line where the bohemian art teacher Katherine (Julia Roberts) is counseling an exceptionally bright student Joan (Julia Stilles). When asked what she will do after college the only answer that made sense to Joan is to be married, the only ultimate goal she had considered.

Of course the film has to incorporate the other types of young women present then, come to think of it they are still around. There is Betty (Kirsten Dunst), the one that needs to be the best, the center of attention and looks down at those around her. For a little contrast there is the wild child Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), chain smoking free spirit that others see as just strange. While watching Mona Lisa Smile you have to remember the times it reflected. It was post World War II, the cold war was just started but women had a taste of freedom and responsibility during the war they never felt before. For many the return to the pre-war gender caste system was almost welcomed, but for a few like Katherine, the future had to hold more for women. What may not work for many people today is we have moved on from the situation displayed here. While there is still a long way to go young women in college today would never be told they had to be content with the role of housewife. To those of my daughter’s generation this seems more like complete fiction than a depiction of times past. The dialogue was a bit on the predicable side, bordering on endless clichés. The movie often falls into the trap of trying too hard, like the student that raise his hand with every question the teacher asks. There is too much déjà vu here.

Mona Lisa Smile is one of the best possible collection of actresses possible. I never really thought of Julia Roberts as the senior member of a cast but I guess it had to happen. She still has the ability, talent that has only grown over the years. A true testament of her dedication to the craft of acting is her willingness to frequently stand in the shadow of her young co-stars. Roberts does not dominate the stage, she gives the others a fighting chance. Of course, the co-stars are among the best young Hollywood has to offer. Dunst is really attempting to grow as an actress. With parts like Virgin Suicides and Crazy/Beautiful she is moving away from the cheerleader types into roles with some greater depth. Here, she plays against her former type with a part that is stuck up and grating, and often over played. Gyllenhaal is a little out of place here. Her forte is definitely the more quirky roles like her excellent performance in The Secretary. Here, her role is mostly a counter point to the other students with her daring (for the time) sexual nature and self assurance. Giselle is already a rebel, of sorts contrasted with the nice girls around her. The one role that really shone was Stilles. There is something about her enthusiasm that carries her character. Like Dunst she is growing nicely into more mature roles.

The director of this opus, Mike Newell has been around for some time now. He was at the helm of such flicks as Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Here, however, there is little that comes across as novel. He seems to take from films like Dead Poets Society to tell the story. As mentioned previously for those of the older generation the tale has been told before, for those who are younger, little is provided to permit them to identify with the plight of the characters. The film comes across as too sappy for its own good. On the technical side Mona Lisa Smile is excellent. There is attention paid to the details of the time, the style of make-up and dress, the mannerisms all do recreate the early fifties. Each shot is framed and lit to perfection but unlike other films Newell has directed the pacing seemed a little off. There is a lack of flow between some scenes.

The Mona Lisa Smile DVD was up to contemporary standards. The video was presented without flaw providing a realistic color palette. This was particularly noticeable with the flesh tones of the actresses, the pale skin contrasting against the bright red lipstick, popular at that time. The Dolby audio was a bit on the flat side offering little for the surround speakers to do. There was some ambience provided but the overall sound stage was somewhat unrealistic. The commentary track by Newell was the all too typical ‘I loved working with these people’ faire. He gushes at the opportunity to direct this bevy of actresses. One interesting featurette was a little pick into what life was like in the fifties for a young woman. For someone of my age it was a time warp back many decades. While interesting for its technical excellence the story of Mona Lisa Smile fails to meet the standards of good story telling. We have seen it before, albeit not with such a cast. It doesn’t work as a feminist film, there is little real conflict here but it is nice to look at.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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