Running Time: 119 minutes
UK Certificate: 12A
Country: United States
A young teacher arrives at an old conservative institution and incurs the suspicions of parents and authorities alike by inspiring students to break out of their conformity and look at the world in new ways. The teacher then leaves, but not before transforming the students' lives and winning their hearts. Yep, stripped down to its essential elements, 'Mona Lisa Smile' is a remake of 'Dead Poets' Society', only the teacher is a woman, art historian Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), the institution is Wellesley College for girls, and the time is the mid-1950s. There may be a female President (Marian Seldes) instead of a male headmaster, but she still utters the same old predictable lines about the main character's 'teaching methods' being 'a little unorthodox'. The subplot of a son clashing with his rigid, domineering father may have been replaced in 'Mona Lisa Smile' with a story involving a daughter, Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), in conflict with her dominating mother (Donna Mitchell), but in either case the parents insist that their own mistakes be repeated by their children, with miserable consequences. There is even, in 'Mona Lisa Smile', a students' secret society, the 'Adam's Ribs', to match the 'Dead Poets'. This is all somewhat ironic in a film whose central message is the dangers of slavishly imitating one's predecessors, whether in life or in art.
What is new about 'Mona Lisa Smile' is its feminism – albeit a kind of feminism-lite, written and directed by men, and launched at the decidedly easy target of the 1950s American establishment. As Katherine Watson is seen colliding with those around her, the stuffiness of her opponents' now outmoded values load the dice so much in her favour that few viewers today could disagree with her perspective, ensuring that this is a film more likely to please crowds than provoke thought. There is a certain pleasure to be had in laughing at the dated absurdity of etiquette classes and home-making advertisments, but this has little to reveal about our lives today. So while 'Mona Lisa Smile' offers an interesting glimpse into the history of women's liberation, and reveals that things now taken entirely for granted were once hard-fought battlegrounds, it has little to contribute to contemporary feminist debate, and wins viewers over not by active argument, but by appeals to a complacent sense of superiority over past values. There are a few moments late in the film where it is suggested that Watson's saintly character may have flaws of its own (inflexibility, intolerance and self-righteousness), but these are half-hearted at best, and drowned out almost entirely by the celebratory ending.
'Mona Lisa Smile' is a well-crafted piece of period cinema, although given the many lectures which Watson delivers on the need to break with tradition and find new modes of expression, it is rather surprising that the film itself has been directed in such a conventional style. What saves it from oblivion is its uniformly oustanding performances – but no matter how much anyone enjoys seeing this film, I defy them to remember it a month afterwards.
It's Got: An amazing female cast who give outstanding performances - plus Ebon Moss-Bachrach (as bespectacled Harvard student Charlie Stewart) who has the potential to be the next Crispin Glover. Tori Amos cameos as a wedding singer.
It Needs: To be less derivative, and probably less long.
Alternatives:Dead Poets Sciety, Far From Heaven, Pleasantville
Exquisitely performed, well-crafted period piece about an original, daring woman which somehow fails to be either original or daring.