clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Movie Review:

"Mona Lisa Smile"

You won't know what the title of this film means till late in the movie, when it will become pretty obvious.

It's set in 1953; hard to believe that was 50 years ago. It's at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and I immediately thought of Wellesley's most famous alum (if you don't know who it is, I'll reveal it at the end of this review. Suffice to say that supposedly, the screenwriters based this loosely on her experiences there).

In 1953, Wellesley's not much more than a "finishing school" for upper-class WASPy women whose main idea is to get their "Mrs." degree, marry a wealthy Harvard lawyer, and settle down and raise a family. Keeping in mind this is just before the sexual and social revolutions of the 1960's, Julia Roberts enters the scene, playing Katherine Watson, a bohemian-type from California who doesn't dress or act in the prissy ways of the '50s, to become a professor of art history to these young women.

There's a few stereotypes among the students; Ginnifer Goodwin plays Connie, the not-so-cute girl who can't get a man, and though it sounds sexist to say so, it breaks your heart; Julia Styles is Joan, the girl who could breeze through law school at Yale if she wanted to, only to remind us that in those days, there were still quotas for accepting women into law school; Maggie Gyllenhaal (who is rapidly becoming the star of her generation for taking on roles that are challenging and fun) is Giselle Levy -- and I mention the last name given to the character only to point out that she appears to be the token Jewish woman admitted to Wellesley -- the class slut who turns out to have the biggest heart of all.

But the show-stealer is Kirsten Dunst, in a fabulous role as Betty, the ice princess (Gyllenhaal's Giselle even calls her a "bitch" right to her face at one point) who marries while still in school, only to learn that her husband's "business" trips to New York aren't really for business after all, and that the mold her parents want her to follow isn't really what she wants either. Donna Mitchell ("The Ice Storm") plays Betty's mother, a woman raised to certain expectations, which she is putting on her daughter, only to learn that the world is changing.

Roberts is great in her role, though she seems somewhat out of place even for a bohemian in the '50s. She's got a California boyfriend, but he seems irrelevant. She falls for the hunky Italian professor, but finds out he's a slick liar. She challenges the students to think outside the box (after they destroy her first lecture by knowing every single art slide she shows). She challenges the administration, especially the president, played with nasty-looking eyebrows by Marian Seldes. There's even a small comment about lesbians made when the obviously-lesbian (her "companion" has just died) school nurse (Juliet Stevenson, who was so good as the mother of a girl she thought was lesbian in "Bend it Like Beckham") is fired for providing diaphragms to the girls.

You might be surprised to find out that this film was directed by a man, Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral", "Donnie Brasco"), because men are treated as nothing more than window dressing here. Sure, it's a chick flick, but there's a point to be made here too. The men are the ones treating the women as strictly homemakers without brains (one of the Wellesley classes is about table setting, taught by Marcia Gay Harden, who wears some of the cat-eye glasses that made women so unattractive in those days), but we also see clearly that Roberts' Katherine Watson isn't an aberration, as the college would like her to be, but just ahead of her time.

Oh, yes, Wellesley's most famous graduate? Hillary Rodham Clinton, who started school there only ten years after this film was set, in 1964.

AYRating: ***