MONA LISA (1986) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 104 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, and strong sexual content.

Cast: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie
Director: Neil Jordan
Producer: Stephen Woolley
Screenplay: Neil Jordan, David Leland

Like the famous painting, Mona Lisa is beautiful, captivating and mysterious. One viewing is simply not enough; multiple are required. There is a depth here unparalleled by most other films, and while countless other comparisons can be made between it and the painting, I prefer to use one in particular – Mona Lisa, like the famous painting, is a work of art.

Irish writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) fills in as Da Vinci and delivers to us what turns out to be a promising and worthwhile venture into the seedier parts of London. Never before has the city been presented in such a way. There are dark, foreboding alleyways; streets cluttered with porn shops and sleazy strip clubs; and cobblestoned sectors where prostitution is rampant. Jordan’s view of the city is atypical – (it might have something to do with him being a native of Ireland) – and helps in contributing to the overall tone of the film.

Mona Lisa opens with Nat King Cole’s song of the same name, which plays against the opening credits. These moments are so sanguine and upbeat that we are anticipating an entirely different film than the one that we’re going to get. Of course, this changes the second that they end.

Bob Hoskins stars as George, recently released from prison. He arrives at the doorstep of his own home to greet his daughter, but she doesn’t recognize him at first glance and his ex-wife throws him out. Tommy (Robbie Coltrane), an old friend, is in the area and offers George a place to stay. On their way home, George pays a visit to Mortwell (Michael Caine), a man who seems to be connected to his prison sentence. Because of this, George feels as though he deserves some sort of recompense. Mortwell is not there, but one of his associates offers George the job of working as a chauffeur for Simone (Cathy Tyson), a high-class call girl. At first, the two do not get along, but a relationship does eventually develop. It is not a romantic relationship, but one where both feel comfortable around each other. Eventually, George learns that Simone is in trouble, and Mortwell is involved.

The story never settles into any particular genre. At some parts, it is a drama. At others, it is a thriller. There are even moments of romance, but not the kind of romance that one expects. This is one of Mona Lisa‘s most admirable attributes.

Probably the best performance comes from Bob Hoskins, who was rightfully nominated for an Oscar. Hoskins is a puzzle of an actor to me. I’m not sure how to categorize him, for he doesn’t quite have the look of an actor that should be in these kinds of roles, yet he plays them to perfection. He makes the character of George. There’s an equal amount of confidence and innocence in his performance that makes us sympathize with him, either when he’s not sure of what’s going on or growling in anger. Hoskins is that kind of unique actor that looks he should always be wearing a perpetual frown and holding an AK-47, but he can display emotion like no other.

Aside from Hoskins, there are other good performances as well. Michael Caine is brutish and caustic as the film’s main villain, one of the few that he’s played in his career. (I deny the existence of On Deadly Ground.) He is terrifically wicked in his role and equally matches the yelling strength of Hoskins in a particular scene. Cathy Tyson does a good job as well in her film debut, and she strangely reminded me of Cynda Williams in Carl Franklin’s One False Move.

Under Jordan’s elegant direction, Mona Lisa is one the classiest films that cinema has ever had to offer. It has an attitude of self-confidence and self-aprpeciation, again much like the famous painting, and there is an air of sophistication that hangs about it. Neil Jordan is a film maker whose work always carries a distinct look about it, and Mona Lisa proves his film making prowess.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest


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