Mona Lisa Smile

Laura Clifford 
Mona Lisa Smile
Robin Clifford 
Unconventional Berkeley grad Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) takes a position teaching art history at the prestigious Wellesley College for women in 1953 and is shocked to learn that her students view their education as a prereq for a good marriage.  Katherine must fight long-held doctrines to open their minds to other possibilities in "Mona Lisa Smile."

Director Mike Newell ("Pushing Tin," "Donnie Brasco") has mounted a handsome production featuring a trio of America's brightest young female stars, but "Mona Lisa Smile" is no "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."  The screenwriting duo behind the "Planet of the Apes" remake, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, use the restrictive mores of the 1950s to fashion a soap opera whose characters are oft too modern for its decade.  A talented cast helps "Mona Lisa Smile" deliver as a high end chick flick.

Katherine is overwhelmed upon her arrival.  She turns down the lush school accommodations when she learns rules forbid male visitors and a hot plate and takes a room at the home of Speech, Elocution and Poise instructor Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden, "Mystic River").  She learns from the secretary of President Jocelyn Carr (Marian Seldes, "Hollywood Ending") that she only obtained the position because the candidate they had chosen took a position at Brown.  Then, during her first class, her students embarrass her in front of an evaluator by already knowing everything she had prepared.  'We're a far cry from Oakland,' observes Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Secretary") in a snotty tone that represents class attitude.

It is this first confrontational scene that is one of the elements of "Mona Lisa Smile" which rings false.  That a class of about fifty girls would all have read a full semester's text in order to show up a non-Ivy League teacher is just too much conspiratorial ill will.  It also seems unlikely that well bred young women of 1953 would mouth off in the classroom.  Of course, Watson wins them over by standing up and introducing some thought-provoking ideas, although Soutine's "Carcass" is dismissed as only grotesque By Katherine's hardest case, Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst, "Spiderman").  Betty, whose mother (Donna Mitchell, TV's "All My Children") is Head of the Alumni, is a first-class witch whose poison pen editorials have already resulted in the dismissal of Katherine's roommate, school nurse Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson, "Nicholas Nickelby"), for dispensing birth control to students (unimaginably illegal until 1966 in Massachusetts).  It is also difficult to swallow that Betty would be best friends with Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles, "Save the Last Dance"), an open-minded young woman Katherine encourages to pursue a law degree.  The last of the principle girls is Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin, TV's "Ed"), a sweet young thing too cute for Betty's put downs who begins a tentative romance with Betty's cousin Charlie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, "American Splendor," giving the most realistic performance of the film's young men).  Giselle is an ill-conceived character, a Mary Magdalene type who idolizes Katherine even though Katherine begins a relationship with Bill Dunbar (Dominic West, "Chicago"), the Italian instructor known for sleeping with students (something which should have appalled Katherine).

Roberts is fine as Katherine, playing just the type of character students at an all girls' school would gravitate towards.  Dunst is terrific playing a thoroughly unlikable character with enough depth to evoke compassion for her plight (an overbearing mother, a marriage almost out of "Far From Heaven").  Stiles is also first rate as a polished intellectual. Gyllenhaal does her best with boozy promiscuity, but her character is the most cliched.  Goodwin has real presence, perhaps the most natural of the lot.  Gay-Harden, so fine in "Mystic River," comes across like an alien life form here, a repressed spinster losing her grip on reality. With the exception of Moss-Bachrach, none of the men (John Slattery ("The Station Agent") and West as Robert's lovers, Topher Grace ("Traffic") and Jordan Bridges ("Frequency") as Joan and Betty's respective fiances) make much of an impression.  In a case of cameo overkill, Tori Amos appears as a wedding singer.

"Mona Lisa Smile" looks great, its women all photographed lovingly by cinematographer Anastas N. Michos ("Death to Smoochy").  Michael Dennison's ("Unfaithful") unflashy costuming reflects the period and its individuals.  At 117 minutes, the film has no flab.

"Mona Lisa Smile" should not be taken as seriously as some of the issues it tries to raise.  It's a glossy soap opera embedded in high-minded surroundings.


1953. Wellesley College for Woman, Wellesley Massachusetts. Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a young art history professor educated at liberal Berkeley University in California, enters this bastion of conservatism where the students, the best and the brightest young women in the US, receive expensive educations before they marry, settle down and raise kids. Watson is about to challenge the less than progressive mores of the school and maybe change the lives of a few of her students in Mike Newell’s “Mona Lisa Smile.”

Katherine jumps right into the academia of Wellesley with his first course, the history of art, for her class of seniors. They are better prepared than she is and the entire class joins together to show the new teacher up. Shaken up a bit by the unexpected assault on her teaching ability she decides to face the pampered rich kids head on and challenges them with her unconventional style. But, it is the time of Congressional witch-hunts and conservative skepticism and Watson is reprimanded for her avant-garde teaching methods. She is also challenged by one of her students, Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), for whom school is just a wayside stopover until she can get married.

Betty is also the editor of the school paper and wields an inordinate amount of clout. When she learns that the school nurse, Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevens), is giving out birth control contraceptives to the student, her scathing editorial results in Armstrong’s (who is alluded to as gay) immediate termination. Betty is all too willing to use her self-righteous poison pen for her own gratification and let everyone else be damned if her words hurt others. The conflict between teacher and student will, of course, will escalate then be meaningfully resolved in this film that should, more accurately, be called “Dead Artists Society.”

Just the nature of “Mona Lisa Smile” begs for comparison to “Dead Poets Society.” Both take place in the 50’s at elitist, conservative East Coast schools. Both have intelligent, liberal teachers who are there to educate their wards in more ways than just academic. But, “Smiles” lacks the angst of the Robin Williams film – nobody dies and nobody gets pregnant, at least not on Julia’s watch – and doesn’t have much to say that is new or fresh.

“Mona Lisa Smile,” to its credit, does a good job of hitting just the right buttons of its intended audience. It is a major chick flick with its superstar surrounded by some of the best young actresses on the their own career fast tracks. Julia does a competent job as Katherine Watson. She is smart, liberal-minded, dedicated to her students and the quality of their education. She objects to the traditional pattern, at Wellesley, of the girls getting a topnotch education only throw it away to get married and have kids. Kathy objects to such waste of potential and tries to instill this philosophy in her wards. The main target for this mission is straight-A senior, Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), who plans to follow on Betty’s heals and get married, too. Katherine, though, convinces the young woman to take a step toward her dream and apply to Yale Law School. She is accepted. But, her boyfriend/fiancé is heading to Philadelphia for his graduate work and Joan casts aside here own plans and opts, instead, for the security of marriage. Chock one up for the conservative establishment.

The vivacious professor does have some success influencing other students, though. Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a quick-witted, chain-smoking class rebel who admires Katherine and is most at one with her teacher. Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin), as close to a class clown as this film can support, has lived under the shadow of well-to-do Betty but, with Katherine’s influence, stands up for herself in the end. Dunst, of the students under Katherine’s tutelage, puts the greatest arc on her character, initially the consummate bitch but, because of Watson and her fellow student, learns that there is much more to life than marriage to a philandering husband. This point is made and Betty’s liberalization completed when she goes toe-to-toe with her overbearing, bigoted Brahmin mother.

The male side of the cast does not, as you would probably guess, get to do much. Dominic West teaches Italian at the school and has the reputation as a war hero, so he appears to be the ideal man. But, we soon learn that he has a dark secret AND is fooling around with some of the students, Giselle in particular, and this is a definite turn off for Katherine. Men, such as Betty’s husband Spencer Jones (Jordan Bridges), are two-dimensional if they are lucky and usually represent something bad or selfish. Marcia Gay Harden, as Katherine’s roommate, Nancy Abbey, is the straight-laced etiquette instructor at Wellesley and is, of course, shocked by Watson’s liberal, unconventional ways. Juliet Steven’s gay, contraceptive-distributing nurse does double duty providing two of the era’s unreasonable taboos of homosexuality and birth control.

The behind-the-camera work is first rate. Anastas Michos’s lensing is crisp and clear with Julia’s close-ups always lit with warmth. Michael Dennison’s costuming delves into what the proper, wealth-born young lady of the 50’s would wear. Production design does not go far beyond the confines of the college and its staid halls.

Keeping in mind that “Mona Lisa Smile” is not aimed at the 14 to 24 male demographic – the theaters are not going to make much money from that crowd with this movie - it is a well-made, feminist-anchored, politically correct liberal film that teaches some good, modern day lessons to its femme audience. I give it a B-.

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