Mona Lisa Smile
I wasn't at Wellesley college in 1953 but I wasn't far away either. And if Wellesley in reality was anything like what we see of it in "Mona Lisa Smile" it would not only not have been one of the Seven Sisters, it wouldn't even have been a poor relation. But we're not here to discuss the state of women's education in the 1950s, but the Julia Roberts movie. Is the movie accurate when it describes a selective women's college as a finishing school? Probably not, but it is surely accurate in its portraits of some very bright, conflicted post-adolescent women who are struggling with and against the mores they were brought up to observe.
We see this through the eyes of Katherine Watson - played by Roberts - a History of Art teacher who lucked into an opening in the department and came from Berkeley on a one-year contract to teach at Wellesley. It's the story of her year there, the 1953-1954 year. She comes well prepared to teach an introductory course, but her students and the administration are not ready to listen and learn. They know everything by rote, but don't get the visceral impact of art. In the course of the year Katherine finds a way to reach some of them, and at least come to a truce with the others. There's Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), greatly threatened by the new teacher, who writes vicious editorials in the school paper attacking just about everything that scares her. There's Joan Brandwyn, hoping to be a lawyer, even applying to Yale Law School, but also afraid to leave the social world her mother insists on. And there's Giselle Levy - called a 'New York kike' by Joan's mother - who seems to have slept with every possible male she can get hold of, including the professor of Italian Bill Dunbar (Damian West).
How Katherine navigates through this maze is the story of the film, and because Julia Roberts is possibly the most attractive woman on the planet we love her in all her strength and her confusions as well. Roberts is unique among film stars because she radiates two things: warmth and intelligence. Warmth as an actor to her fellow actors in the story - that is, the characters she's playing with -- and great warmth, almost love, to the audience. The intelligence is an ability to let her character reveal itself. She's not the most versatile actor in films today, but she has chosen her roles very well, and we not only know what we're going to get, we can't wait to get it. Probably not since the heyday of Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell has there been any woman in film who could do that. Cary Grant had it as well, but I'm not sure I can think of any other male with that ability.
The film was directed by Mike Newell, an Englishman who's directed in both countries for more than thirty years - Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco are two of his films, and that's quite a range. He gives us a good sense of the story, but the film looks as though it was cut down in length so that we get to know less about Katherine's students during the year than we should. In the middle of the year she has an affair herself with the Italian professor, who's played as such a slimy caricature by West that anyone with a brain should have seen through his lies. We can lay that at the feet of the writers, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal.
And yet "Mona Lisa Smile" is not at all a bad film. It's not a fairy tale, it takes art seriously, and it has an ending that is at least believable and has some integrity. What's wrong with that?