Julia & Julia
When I got "Mona Lisa Smile", it was purely because it starred Julia & Julia, as in Julia Roberts and Julia Stiles, 2 of my favourite actresses, and then I read the synopsis I thought huge mistake as an uplifting story about an art history teacher didn't sound my sort of thing. To my surprise "Mona Lisa Smile" captivated me not just because of my favourite actresses but because of the story, cinematography, location and the rest of the cast. It may have said it was an inspiring tale in the DVD blurb but I really didn't believe that "Mona Lisa Smile" would have such an inspiring story.
It's 1953 and recently graduated teacher, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts - Ocean's Eleven) is hired to teach Art History at the prestigious, all-girl, Wellesley College. When confronted by the conservative traditions and outdated values that they instil into the girls, she attempts to inspire her class to challenge these values and to define their own lives and destinies.
There are several parts to the plot of "Mona Lisa Smile" with the main theme being about Katherine Watson challenging the traditional thinking of the college. Another very important part of the movie is that when they enter the real world and lose the rose tinted spectacles about how good their life will be, they have to deal with problems and disappointments. This in a way turns the story into a coming of age movie, but is told in a completely different way to the traditional ones. There are also several different love stories, all of which have different twists and endings. All these themes, bind together to make "Mona Lisa Smile" quite a compelling movie, which leaves you feeling inspired.
The main star of "Mona Lisa Smile" is Julia Roberts, who pulls out one of her best performances as the teacher, Katherine Watson. You start to sympathise with her character as she battles against the strict rules and conservative standards of the institution along with her romantic rollercoaster ride. Although Miss Roberts may be the star, "Mona Lisa Smile" would be nothing without the supporting cast which includes; Kirsten Dunst, Dominic West, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Special Mention goes to Kirsten Dunst who plays Betty Warren, a pupil and staunch supporter of the college's traditions and ideals. She goes about making Miss Watson's life a misery through her attitude and her opinions that she writes in the college newspaper.
Director Mike Newell has done a tremendous job with "Mona Lisa Smile". He has used all his skill to make the whole movie tell the story, whether it is the characters, or the scenery, or the lighting they all demonstrate the emotions and feelings that he is trying to get across in each scene. For example, the bar where Miss Watson likes to go and drink, it is darker, smokier and has customers who would not fit the Wellesley set of ideals.
I must mention the location of "Mona Lisa Smile". The actual Wellesley College was used, and you can honestly see through this grand building and historic rooms, such as the library, that this place is steeped in years of tradition. I honestly believe that this location is the unsung star of "Mona Lisa Smile" as it is so pivotal in making the story so believable. And to add to this the actual "Mona Lisa Smile" soundtrack, the blend of orchestral and choir pieces bring the right amount of emotion to the story.
What this all boils down to is that whilst "Mona Lisa Smile" may look like a stuffy movie made for women it is surprisingly entertaining. It manages to blend the story of an inspirational teacher with that of a coming of age movie and in doing so is surprisingly well rounded. Plus with a pleasant nostalgic feel, great locations and some enjoyable performances it is most certainly a better movie than it looks from the synopsis