PFS Film Review
Mona Lisa Smile


Mona Lisa SmileRetro films about the 1950s attempt to locate a defining moment when rigid traditions were broken, when everyone dressed nicely, spoke correctly, and women and minorities were in their place--a neoconservative's utopia. The first was Dead Poets Society (1989). The second was Pleasantville (1998). The third was Far From Heaven (2002). This year's Mona Lisa Smile is the fourth. The first exposed anti-Semitism, which is far from dead. The second dealt with family values, the third with crossing color and heterosexual lines. Mona Lisa Smile is about women's liberation. Among the four, Mona Lisa Smile is the best at recalling popular songs and television shows of the '50s. Katherine Watson (played by Julia Roberts) is hired from Oakland State College in California to teach art history at the all-female elite Wellesley College outside Boston, dubbed the "most conservative college" in the United States. (The filming locations are Wellesley, Columbia and Yale.) A liberated woman, when she arrives in September 1953 she encounters a campus with long traditions, extremely intelligent but snobbish students who have memorized the textbook before the first day of class, and faculty who are cowed into rigid rules. Gossip abounds, with students circulating stories about their boyfriends, and there is a race to marry a scion before graduation; as Watson puts it, Wellesley is really a "finishing school" for women who will support their rich husbands by providing well-bred appearances. Much of the gossip ends up in the school newspaper, where Betty Warren (played by Kirsten Dunst) reports deviations from the norms; her voiceovers convey her later unpublished opinions. Italian language professor Bill Dunbar (played by Dominic West), rumored to be sleeping with his students, lets them believe that he is a war hero who learned Italian on the battlefront in World War II, but his indiscretions are kept secret. The hypocrisy is best epitomized by the smile on Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which portrays something unhappy behind the mask (though there is no mention in the film, despite Watson's efforts to open the minds of students to breakthroughs in art, of the theory that Leonardo was painting a self-portrait). The first sign of rebellion comes when school nurse Amanda Armstrong (played by Juliet Stevenson), secretly distributes condoms, for which she is fired soon after Betty pens an article in the school newspaper that outs her practice of giving out freebies (though, surprisingly, not for being a Lesbian). Nevertheless, the identity of students who eagerly accept the condoms is editorially protected. Since Watson arrives at Wellesley with the intention of enlightening students, she decides to deviate from prescribed lesson plans, thus forcing intelligent students to think. Only a few immediately accept the challenge. The first is Giselle Levy (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), who claims to be having sex with Dunbar. At Watson's urging, Joan Bradwyn (played by Julia Stiles) applies and is accepted in one of the five positions reserved for women at Yale Law School, one of which is informally set aside for a Wellesley graduate. (As late as 1959, the incoming class had only three women.) However, newlywed Betty student threatens Watson of "consequences" if she receives failing grades for not attending class while organizing her own wedding and furnishing her new house. She spoils the chances of a classmate for a husband, and she continues to badmouth other students. Much happens during the year, thanks to Watson's eventual popularity for trying to move the college into the 1960s. Wellesley's President Jocelyn Carr (played by Marian Seldes) cleverly invites Watson to return in the following academic year, provided that she conforms, a most unlikely outcome. Directed by Mike Newell, Mona Lisa Smile ends with some surprises, such as Betty's discovery that her husband's true love is in New York, but filmviewers know that the '60s ultimately triumphs even if the movie shows that the norms of the '50s still prevail. Nevertheless, later Wellesley graduates Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are said to have inspired the saga. MH

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