Review: “Mona Lisa Smile”

A decade ago Peter Weir delivered “Dead Poets Society”, an emotionally powerful tale of students coming of age in college with the help of a non-conformist teacher. Like all greats it became a film that’s been referenced, applauded and of course ripped off countless times. Most notably last year came the woeful “The Emperor’s Club” which tried the same thing with Kevin Kline, and now here is “Mona Lisa Smile” which takes ‘Emperor’, changes the time period and gender of its stars and adds a bigger box-office name in the form of Julia Roberts. Like that film, it is also a pale imitation.

The young cast are all proven actors who’ve shown great work in recent times so its a wonder why they were captivated by an essentially pedestrian and all too predictable script which turns ‘Mona’ into a tedious bore. There’s no startling insight to these characters, many of them in fact have their subplots fumbled from the get go and never recover – most notably ice queen Kirsten Dunst whose change of heart occurs all too late and unconvincingly. There’s never any clear insight into these characters (and they fall into stereotypes) or as to why they either fell in or stood against the oppressive system.

Likewise Roberts, who delivers as usual, tries teaching these girls about the beauty of contemporary art by pulling out a Jackson Pollack and trying to get them to think about the mess of colour and texture – fine and good but it never really motivates us as an audience to look deeper with them, whilst the art itself seemingly has little impact on these girls. The whole point of the film in many ways seems to be bringing up how strict social standards were in the 50’s in conservative colleges but it never satirises or analyses them – rather just puts them on display which sadly means many of the characters simply follow the grain and therefore just aren’t that interesting.

Of the cast its bad girl Maggie Gyllenhaal who easily outshines everyone else and at least gets to loosen up with her character. Dunst and Stiles are fine but too much like stock characters to leave an impact. Dominic West as an Italian professor is likeable but forgettable, but prim & proper Marcia Gay Harden and tell it like it is Juliet Stevenson both shine in supporting pieces. Production value wise it looks great and successfully pulls off the era without going overboard. Newell as a director also manages to cut between subplots well and never lets it get too dull. Still, there’s just not enough here to save let alone be worth your money. Fans of the stars might enjoy it, otherwise its an exercise we’ve all done before.