Mona Lisa Smile
- Julia Roberts as Katherine Watson
- Kirsten Dunst as Betty Warren
- Julia Stiles as Joan Brandwyn
- Maggie Gyllenhaal as Giselle Levy
- Ginnifer Goodwin as Connie Baker
- Dominic West as Bill Dunbar
- Marcia Gay Harden as Nancy Abbey
- Juliet Stevenson as Amanda Armstrong
It may not offer much in the way of originality in the inspiring teacher style of films and is occasionally meandering ,but Mona Lisa Smile more than makes up for these flaws with its warm-hearted nature, stunning look and excellent work of the predominately female cast, headed by Julia Roberts.
It is the 1950’s and Katherine Watson is a free-thinking art history teacher hired by Wellesley college for young woman for a year. The college is a rigidly formal one that is base on tradition, something which poses a problem for Katherine and her progressive ideas. The girls she teaches are clearly bright and have futures ahead of them, but they have all been brought up and taught that once they finish college and even while they are in it to find a husband and settle down as a housewife. The bohemian Katherine is annoyed by this as she sees clear potential within the young ladies of her class, such as Joan Brandwyn, who has a talent for law, bashful Connie Baker and the vampy Giselle Levy, who relates the most to the way Katherine thinks. And instead of just following the planned syllabus of her class that details she must follow, she goes against this by getting the girls to discuss the nature of art and what the merits of it are.Coming up against opposition, mainly from the opinionated and bitchy Betty Warren who has been spoon fed the idea of being a dutiful wife and being subservient, Katherine continues to instruct the girls of what they could do with their lives and how they could go on to better things than just marriage. Bucking the trend and going against the system, she slowly gains their admiration and respect.
As aforementioned, Mona Lisa Smile is not exactly a groundbreaking movie but neither is it trying to be. Mike Newell brings finesse to the film with his directing, that lets us glimpse a woman inspiring the girls around her to break free from the chains of tradition and see beyond the horizons. Despite the odd mawkish moment and the movie sometimes needed an injection of pace, Mona Lisa Smile remains an engaging film because of the characters and the way it pokes fun at the ridiculously rigid 1950’s and what a woman was expected to do. I liked how although Katherine wants the girls to open up to the idea of going against the norm, she doesn’t force it on them. Instead, through little steps and her lessons, she shows them that they are destined for greatness and not just to become what everyone else tells them they should be. The film to look at it stunning in a rose-tinted way that also serves the purpose of exposing the unhappiness behind the seemingly perfect lifestyles of being a married woman was like. Costume design and scenery is beautifully constructed and a marvel to see. A lilting score from Rachel Portman stunningly compliments the journey of the girls as their minds are opened to the possibility of change from the status quo.
Julia Roberts makes for a sympathetic and coltish lead portraying the inspiring Katherine. The fact that Roberts is largely associated with contemporary movies stands her in good stead here as Katherine is supposed to be a character who stands out against the restrictions of the time. Roberts brings her charm and warmth to the part, along with the desire for change that makes for a great performance. Kirsten Dunst makes an impression as the bitchy but underneath it all blinkered Betty, who constantly berates those around her for trying to be different from what they’ve been told to do. As bitchy and spiteful as the character is, Dunst brings forth the sadness of Betty and how her delusions of a wonderful married life are proved wrong. Her scenes with Roberts are fantastic as the two schools of ideas clash. Julia Stiles has a luminosity that she equips Joan with that makes her relatable as she is caught in the middle ground of following her dreams and sticking to tradition. Maggie Gyllenhaal gets all the best lines as the sexy and rebellious Giselle, who brazenly has affairs, drinks a lot and just doesn’t give a damn about it or what anyone thinks. Gyllenhaal has such a vibrancy about her in this film that is very endearing and mischievous. Ginnifer Goodwin is suitably sweet as the hopelessly romantic Connie, but Dominic West is hopelessly wasted as a potential love interest for Katherine that really doesn’t go anywhere. In supporting roles, Marcia Gay Harden as a buttoned-up elocution teacher and Juliet Stevenson as the disapproving college nurse give class to an already stellar cast.
So while it brings nothing new to the table as such, Mona Lisa Smile is still filled with enough talent and story to make you connect with it.