Movie Review: Mona Lisa Smile
I’m not a fan of visual arts. Don’t get me wrong, I have the highest respects for them and I’m fully conceding a rightful existence to all painters, sculpturers, architects and designers. It’s just that I never really caught the tickling vibe from staring at, to me, incoherent forms of color and shape. So I was at first somewhat reluctant about the 2003 blockbuster Mona Lisa Smile, directed by Mike Newell, who is also known for Donnie Brasco (1997) and of course Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). But since I LOVE Julia Roberts, I just had to see it. And she didn’t let me down, thank you very much.
The plot is set in 1953, where Katherine Watson (Roberts), a free-spirited UCLA graduate, accepts an Art History teaching position at prestigious Wellesley College, a strictly conservative women-only school in New England. Her students are here to learn acceptable forms of art (Picasso is still inappropriate), while in fact the girls as good as get trained to take on their intended places as traditional upper society housewives after graduation. There are actual “poise” and “dinner management” classes, straight from the washing machine and vacuum cleaner advertisements (“Make your wife a happy wife, give her some home appliances”). Watson is frustrated by the narrowmindedness and apparent lack of life choices left to the girls and decides to try and set them free. While she manages to inspire some students with her shockingly independent way of thinking, others are sticking to their safe values and Watson, unwilling to conform to any conventions, soon gets mobbed by many considering her a Californian bohemian and a threat to civilization. There’s struggle, betrayal, shattered illusions, awakened hopes, young people torn between different mind sets and lots of drama, until Watson finally recognises her lost cause, that is, bringing change to a whole generation all by herself. (Do you get the Obama feeling right now, too? Oh my.)
What I love about Mona Lisa Smile is its truly happy ending, when Watson leaves Wellesley, but not without having gained her students’ respect, trust and friendship. Sincere frankness does pay off, and Watson even comes to accept that some girls choose their future at home deliberately and not all is bad about traditions. It’s the aware choices that you have to make.
Julia Roberts did, as always, an amazing job at bringing her character to life with a credibility and natural sympathy only few actresses can pull off. I am most definitely going to watch every single movie of hers. So, to my great relief, Mona Lisa Smile was in no way all about art, but art simply as a powerful metaphore to expressing lifestyles (as it probably always is, now that I come to think about it. Silly me! :)). The reason I relate to the subject so much is mainly autobiographical. I too needed (and still need) to sort out whatever it is I want, and realise it, at any cost. But for now it’s bye Hollywood, I’m going back to my mind mapping. Smile, girls, smile!