Mona Lisa (United Kingdom, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Serene. Beautiful. Untouchable. All of those words can be used to describe the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci's best-known painting, "The Mona Lisa." And, while almost everyone knows what she looks like, no one knows her story. Her life is a blank canvas, open to whatever tale we wish to weave about her history, her background, her relationship to the painter, and the reason for the slight smile on her face. There are obvious parallels between the woman in the painting and the character portrayed by British actress Cathy Tyson in her 1986 screen debut. There is, after all, a distinct reason that writer/director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) chose to name the movie Mona Lisa.

Although Tyson's character, the prostitute Simone, is the representation of the Mona Lisa, the central character is an everyman named George, played by Bob Hoskins. It is George's obsession for Simone that validates the title. For him, she is the Mona Lisa - beautiful, mysterious, and unattainable. From his limited contact with her, and based on the stories she tells him (some true, some not), he concocts an image of the woman he wants her to be. In the end, when he discovers that the reality is nothing like his fantasy, and that she has manipulated him into believing things that were not true, he is stunned and hurt.

Jordan has skillfully developed this story not only to examine George's fascination for Simone, but to dissect their relationship. Although Simone does not return George's feelings, she is attuned to them, and uses them to her own ends. But she does not think harshly of George. He is kind towards her, and she appreciates that. Both of them need each other, albeit in different ways, so, in a sense, the relationship is mutually beneficial. But, in the end, once Simone has gotten what she wants, George realizes that he can never have what he hoped for.

In an era when there are so many tales, both in and outside of the movies, about sexual predators, George is exactly the opposite. Although he does not understand women, he is their champion -- from his young daughter, with whom he is attempting to re-build a relationship, to a pair of teenage prostitutes who he tries to rescue from the streets, to Simone. In one sense, Mona Lisa is the story of George's redemption, and, although he doesn't attain the object of his desire in the end, he achieves something far more important to his spiritual well-being.

The story takes place in the seedier parts of London. George has just been released from a lengthy term in prison. We don't know what his crime is, and we never find out. His first stop is to visit his old home. Initially, his daughter doesn't seem to recognize him, but his ex-wife does, and she throws him out. At that point, an old friend of George's, Tommy (Robbie Coltrane), shows up and offers his mate a place to sleep. On the way back to Tommy's, George stops in at a bar to find Mortwell (Michael Caine). It seems that his prison term was in some way connected to this man, and he feels that he is owed something. Mortwell's henchman gives George work as the driver for Simone (Cathy Tyson), a local prostitute.

The initial meeting between George and Simone is not promising. By virtue of her profession, George sees her as somewhere below him on the social scale, and is contemptuous of being ordered around by her. His coarse manner irritates Simone, and his careless approach to dressing offends her sensibilities (for her, a high priced call girl, clothes are everything). But Simone immediately recognizes something in George that can satisfy a need she has, and she sets about trying to win his confidence, first by buying him expensive suits, and then by telling him her life's story. George responds as she knows he will - by offering to help her. He soon learns that Simone is in trouble. An ex-pimp is anxious to cut her face, and Mortwell is somehow involved.

It is a tribute to Jordan's talent that Mona Lisa works equally as well as a drama, a thriller, and even a black comedy. The film is a meditation on obsession, a mystery, and a travelogue of the benighted streets of London's impoverished districts. Most of all, however, it is a character study of George, a supposedly-hardened criminal who finds that he is not only capable of loving, but can be torn apart by feelings he doesn't fully understand how to cope with. Oddly enough, although Simone is a prostitute, George's feelings for her are almost entirely platonic. He does not sleep with her, and he is frankly shocked when he sees her performing on screen in a pornographic video. Sex has no place in George's fantasy. (It's interesting to note that Jordan filmed a scene in which George and Simone spent the night together, but cut it from the final release because it compromised the essence of both the characters and their relationship.)

Most films that spend time in the streets of London focus on the familiar sights: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, etc. Not so with Mona Lisa, which takes us into squalid backalleys and onto forbidding overpasses. Jordan's unconventional view of London is almost gothic, and rivals the most unflattering screen portrayal of a modern city in any film, including New York in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. With its porn shops, strip clubs, and prostitute-clogged sidewalks, the portrait painted by Mona Lisa is far from a postcard representation of London.

It is into this environment that the curiously naïve George is thrust. Bob Hoskins, for whom this role was re-written, excels at bringing out the odd mixture of toughness and innocence in George. He may have spent time in jail, but he's hardly a hard core criminal, and the situations in which he finds himself - scouring the streets for an underage prostitute who may no longer be alive - are foreign to him. Of course, he's on even less familiar ground in his relationship with Simone. Credit Hoskins, who earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this performance, with the transformation of George from a character on paper to the kind of living, breathing human being that an audience can relate to and sympathize with.

Aside from Hoskins' work, Mona Lisa features three standout performances. The first belongs to Cathy Tyson, who, in an almost-flawless feature debut, plays the hooker without a heart of gold. The second is Robbie Coltrane's. Coltrane, who has developed a noteworthy career in comedy, here displays an aptitude for stronger, less amusing material. Finally, there's Michael Caine, who delights in this atypical opportunity to play a snake-like villain. (Jordan goes all out to emphasize the vileness of Caine's Mortwell, even going so far as to photograph him in shadow.)

In an era when movies about love almost always invariably devolve into formulaic affairs, Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa stands out as an often-surprising, multi-layered achievement. By offering a rumination on a wide variety of love - real, imagined, romantic, sexual, and platonic - Mona Lisa defies easy categorization and offers a complex and superior one-hundred minutes for all who view it.

Mona Lisa (United Kingdom, 1986)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1