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Mona Lisa Smile

Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 114 mins . PG . PAL


It’s a brave filmmaker who will attempt to wring something new from the teacher genre. It’s been done and done to death. There are those that stand out (Stand and Deliver, To Sir With Love, Mr. Holland’s Opus) and those that fall firmly into the trite and clichéd (Dangerous Minds, The Emperor’s Club). Mona Lisa Smile manages to be slightly better than average, but still fairly close to average in its overall appeal.

I can see why actors would take on the role of a teacher. It’s a chance to appear inspiring in a film and to benchmark their range in a space of around two hours. However, if there’s no decent script there to support what is a relatively a straightforward plot device, there is really nothing there for them to work with. Therefore, their range and their broad grasp of acting emotion is wasted on something with limited appeal.

Julia Roberts plays Katherine Ann Watson here in the Fall of 1953 (this is the angle). She is teaching at a snooty school for girls in a time when girls were trained seals who got a degree before going home to make babies and cook dinner for their husbands who actually used their degrees. Miss Watson (no Ms’ back then) doesn’t think this is the go and through her art history classes attempts to instruct the girls that they can view life differently than they previously had been indoctrinated to.

Meanwhile, the snooty girls of privilege all view her differently as she progresses through the school year, getting mixed reviews from both students and faculty alike. Is it possible in time her values can overcome the stalwart rigours of generations before her?

As I said, it’s a brave filmmaker who will attempt to do something new with a hacked to death genre like the teaching one. When considering the writing team on this film were also responsible for films like the remake of Planet of the Apes plus Mercury Rising and The Beverly Hillbillies, you might get some idea of where this film is going. Without the dynamic cast you can be rest assured this would have been invisible in cinemas and have but one copy sitting lone amidst the acres of Movie Guarantees of something else at your local video store. Julia Roberts plays Julia Roberts playing a teacher, as we would expect, and the supporting cast of Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Marcia Gay Harden, Ginnifer Goodwin and the hopelessly underrated Maggie Gyllenhaal all bring what little script there is to a fairly decent semblance of life.

There’s also another point about films like this to be made; every generation requires vehicles of this sort and that’s probably why films like this continue to be made. Each generation also requires films from all other genres which is why there are a lot of other types of films being made continually as well. And this is where the term cliché comes from, after all.

That doesn’t mean we have to like every single version that comes along, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Films should be made to the best possible way they can and while we have a great bunch of actors here doing the best they can, the script is not the best it could have been as it ducks in and out of cheap metaphor to pad the film (the film’s title is a big clue for a start). Again, without the cast, this film is a turkey, major. However, they manage to bring it into the ‘rental’ and ‘watchable’ fields, though I must leave it up to you, faithful reader, as to whether it then migrates into ‘ownable’.


A superb transfer with very little by way of fault. In fact, there’s really nothing to fault it. The colours are great, the lines are crisp and the shadow detail is great. Blacks are true and flesh tones are natural. The excellent and authentic 1950s backdrop is sensational, as is the vision of various artworks from many eras. It’s also delivered in 1.85:1 with 16:9 anamorphic enhancement, so that’s something great as well.


A fairly stock standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix does the trick here, though it has little by way of surround activity to recommend it. A few crowded room scenes and traffic noises get about, but generally the surrounds work the music throughout the room. This has been scored by Rachel Portman who has created a fairly competent orchestral piece here, although it wends its way into the overly sentimental at times. Otherwise everything is neato in the transfer of the audio as well.


Just a few to keep those mortarboards nestled firmly on your heads. The first is the Art Forum, a 6:33 bit of the cast discussing art and its use in the film as a collection of soundbite interviews. This has been shot post-film and compiled from several sources, as have the following two featurettes.

The first is College Then and Now, which cruises for 14:40 and is exactly as the title suggests; a comparison of the two. More cast interviews during filming this time, as compared to post-film. Our final featurette is entitled What Women Wanted: 1953 and is a another string of interview bits and pieces. They could easily have compiled the three featurettes into one big pancake, but the extras would have been so much smaller then.

A music video of Elton John singing In the Heart of Every Girl is next and who better to know than Elton? This runs for 3:56 and is followed by eight filmographies for cast and principal crew current to 2005.

Then, to bring up the rear, we have trailers for Mona Lisa Smile, Big Fish, Gothika, The Missing, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Spider-Man 2 and Stepmom. Naturally, some are older releases but advertise films that star Julia Roberts in case there’s anyone left in the world who doesn’t know who she is. Like they just drifted down from a trip into space and arrived back on a planet controlled by humans and they’re apes or something. With an ape Statue of Liberty holding a banana.


Mona Lisa Smile annoyed me from the moment I heard the cheesy title and while I found it watchable, this is wholly due to the excellent cast of competent actors. The script is weak and has no real substance and in the moments it attempts this, it comes across as laboured and cheaply metaphored.

If you like Ms. Roberts, this is more of the same from her, though she’s made far better films that have expanded her range far more impressively (see Erin Brokovich for example). The dutiful female cast also impress, with equal to the task performances from the bigger names of Stiles, Dunst, Harden and Gyllenhaal. Worth a rental when you’re trying to impress your girlfriend or a girl your trying to impress, though I would suggest this before committing to purchase.

Class dismissed.

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      And I quote...
    "Weighty metaphors clunk heavily across a simple plot that is poorly contrived and only saved by the performances of a stellar cast."
    - Jules Faber
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