Mona Lisa
First screened in April 2003; reviewed in June 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Neil Jordan. Cast: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Caine, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie, Sammi Davis, Zoë Nathenson, Hossein Karimbeik, Pauline Melville, Raad Rawi. Screenplay: Neil Jordan and David Leland.
Twitter Capsule: Uneven in many respects but boasts thrilling sequences, peak Hoskins perf, gutsy conviction

Photo © 1986 Island Pictures/Palace Productions
Neil Jordan's best films, or else the best parts of all of them, show unusual strength in their novelistic conceptions as well as in their visual, kinetic, and stylistic executions. As an audience, that's already a lot to ask and even more to receive. What puzzles and occasionally frustrates about the same films, though, is that Jordan's literary and cinematic acumens don't always work in tandem. Though he often comes across as caring most about plot, trope, motif, and symbol, what I remember most about the films are quick bursts of action, ratchetings of tension, shadings of performance, and images whose power exceeds and alters their immediate narrative context. I think he's a talented enough filmmaker to make his shrewd, ambitious, appealingly unusual, but occasionally creaky scripts work on screen. I'd hazard a guess he considers himself a talented enough writer to get by with a cinematic style that's perfectly sturdy, despite its being a rotating mélange of thefts and imitations more than it is an original aesthetic. Both arguments are justified, and it's odd how often a given sequence in a Jordan film makes the difference between them feel vaster than it might actually be. Some characters and scenes in his films inevitably expose the least recuperated impulses of his writer's imagination, or else the least imaginative flexings of his cinematic intuition. At the same time, Jordan's ability to deliver a spontaneous jolt via the right, dynamic gesture or swerve or revelation provides an extra layer of welcome, resonant suspense in films like Mona Lisa or The Crying Game or The Butcher Boy (which I may well have underestimated back in 1998). You wonder what rabbits he'll pull out of what hats and when, and you know he's always got it in him, even if you can't help wishing he'd pull them out a little more consistently.

In the case of Mona Lisa, the bracing peaks of image, acting, and narrative architecture handily win the day over a scenario that always feels more like a willfully engineered exercise than a fully plausible reality. Oscar-nominated Bob Hoskins plays George, a plug-shaped, recently released petty criminal who would be a likable enough fellow if it weren't for the scarier swings of his temper and, given his monetary needs and overall short-sightedness, his pitiful susceptibility to other people's schemes, noble and ignoble. George is a boiling pot that could bubble over at any moment and repeatedly does, though he's just bright enough to perceive his own humiliating complicity in whatever has angered or shamed him. This sad self-consciousness usually slakes the force of his aggression just a bit. Under Jordan's writing and directing hand, which isn't quite free of cliché, and in Hoskins' impressive performance, underplaying subtleties despite generally bold effects, George comes to life as more than a concocted, generically familiar protagonist. When he gets hired as the chauffeur for a high-priced call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson), despite this being an obvious conceit for an act of romantic storytelling, you cannot tell whether Simone will furnish an occasion for George's redemption or for his worst, rescidivist impulses—a device to prompt self-recognition or prompt recognition of others, including herself. Otherwise, George might refuse either form of recognition in his dealings with Simone, which has been his destructive tendency for too long. That's why he's in this job. That's why the film starts with a memorable blow-up between George and his furiously estranged wife, and why he still serves the bidding of a criminal he doesn't know and is plainly frightened of, and why his only friend is a pleasant, shuffling recluse named Thomas (Robbie Coltrane) who appears to live in a warehouse, surrounded by curious objects like plaster-cast piles of spaghetti, and prone to recounting the plots of whatever he's just seen on TV.

I advise forgetting about Thomas, seemingly a vestige of some earlier draft of the script that had a stronger idea of what to do with him; he survives as an excuse for blunt symbols of isolation and visual mirages, and he makes all too prosaically clear the film's investment in storytelling as act, theme, and compulsive habit. Other characters who come and go make a stranger, richer, sometimes scarier impression, like Sammi Davis's May, a young, dim, and hard-edged prostitute whose interactions with George I didn't quite buy, yet who nonetheless gives Mona Lisa some fortuitous jolts of sorrow, danger, and lust. George's shadowy boss turns out to be a ferocious, conspicuously deferred semi-cameo by Michael Caine, who is an effective presence even if both the film and the actor aim too obviously for an outsized figure of magnetic psychopathology, the kind that's supposed to leave you wanting more, especially if you're an awards voter. I felt like I had just enough, and was too aware of Caine's and Jordan's eagerness to present a cold-blooded misanthrope. Still, Caine's good, and though won his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters the year Mona Lisa came out, the one-two punch of dissimilar but vivid turns should have made his "surprise" victory even more of a foregone conclusion. Cathy Tyson also earned some awards heat for her flinty but cryptic take on Simone. She negotiates those tones capably, serving as a transfixing sphinx for George, a mysterious ideal of both eroticized femininity and unexpected companionship. But Tyson, in cahoots with Jordan, finds ways to remind the audience that in seeing Simone primarily as George sees her, often enough as a partial image reflected in his rearview mirror, we are only making the slightest inroads into the woman she actually is. We forget less often than George does that we don't really know her, and we cannot see to the bottom of her elusive network of motives for acting as she does, for seeking what she seeks.

Jordan loves to break out new talent, and though he succeeds again with Tyson, he doesn't always manage to sand down the rougher edges of his ingenues' paying styles. This is particularly evident when Tyson has to play big emotional scenes of anger with George, or when you perceive too frankly how the actress, not the character, is trying to resist a dubious embodiment of the eroticized racial other. Simone is black, which is probably not incidental to why George feels so drawn to her, nor to his crescendoes of bitterness or contempt when she seems to condescend to him or to refuse the roles in which he appears eager to cast her, sometimes without realizing it. These push-pull oscillations of attraction and skepticism propel the key questions of the film. What does Simone want? How do those desires involve George? How ably can he fulfill them, and how does he allow himself to understand Simone, or understand her relationship to him? Jordan does canny work in making Simone a resonant figure with other women in the life of this increasingly lonely bulldog, including George's wife and daughter and the other women with whom Simone works. Mona Lisa makes intriguing sense if you understand George's riskiest and most decisive actions as specifically intended on Simone's behalf, whether or not at her actual behest. The film invites equally suggestive readings if you grasp George's behavior as a series of gestures by which he aims to expiate for past misdeeds and to prove his self-worth obliquely to all the other women he associates with Simone, or even to himself.

These ambiguities feel richer than the hidden-in-plain-sight "reveal" about Simone that unfolds in the closing 20 minutes of Mona Lisa, which the movie seems too intent on presenting as a missing puzzle piece in a psychological mystery. This epiphany links up with key figurations in The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire in ways that prompt one to ponder, somewhat wearily, what it is exactly that Neil Jordan thinks about when he thinks about women of color. Even as I say that, though, I admit to being impressed with how Mona Lisa elsewhere achieves its tough but compassionate empathy with a range of embattled characters, declining to render them as saints or victims, and pushing its tale toward nervy, lurid extremes without worrying too much about decorum, in its images or its politics. Still, the film gets progressively shakier in its relation to Simone and to our presumed responses to her throughout these closing beats, which are a little bit Crying Game, a little bit Chinatown, and a little bit of a role-reversed Taxi Driver. Meanwhile, Hoskins does a tremendous job of showing how George sadly, inexorably, and reluctantly connects some dots about this woman who has assumed such totemic importance in his life, and how betrayed or rejected he appears to feel, quite inappropriately. We know what impulses George gives into when he feels this way, though you can see him attempting to avert some old reflexes. The plot reveal itself is a bit cynical and dubiously sensationalized, and it precedes a final coda in Mona Lisa that feels incongruously like a consolation prize to assuage a character whom we are meant, more than ever, to feel sorry for. Still, and this accounts for a great deal of why Mona Lisa feels so satisfying, these more doubtful elements of the text are transcended and richly fleshed out with an incisive portrait of George's character—specifically, his intensifying, violent, heartbroken distress over how people see him or don't see him, how disposable he is or isn't to them, how he is and isn't able to surpass his often-humbled but weirdly indomitable expectations for himself.

At one key point, as these key disclosures start circulating, Jordan forces Hoskins and Tyson to play a pivotal scene on a public boardwalk, wearing the most ridiculous pairs of plastic sunglasses with star-shaped lenses. The absurdity of this getup in the midst of such emotional nakedness—played totally straight by the actors, whose characters are at that moment feeling ridiculous for different and deeper reasons—actually heightens the uncanny power of the exchange. The same scene soon explodes into a long, manic tracking, racing horizontally down the same boulevard. Such bold swoops of editing and cinematography have a productively jarring impact in Mona Lisa, surely because they are kept on such a generally tight leash. Earlier, Jordan engineers one doozy of a suspense sequence on a metal-cage elevator, starting with a shocking edit to an unseen aggressor and playing out in a series of unbearable shot-reverses between the confined and the wild, the fast and the slow. He distills a powerful emblem of salacious corruption and helpless self-abasement in a scene that's built around a one-way mirror which is also a trap door. When George inevitably barges in one of Simone's sessions with a perverse, high-paying client, Jordan and cinematographer Roger Pratt manage to balance the scene nimbly between the seductive, the ridiculous, and the oddly mundane. These are the other reasons Mona Lisa satisfies—even if the lighting goes back and forth between looking stylish on a budget and just looking under-budgeted, and even if the costume design could occasionally use more restraint or finesse, and even if the full-length incorporation of the Genesis ballad "In Too Deep," no matter how apropos of the action of the moment, feels too much like an AOR product placement—a flight into pop idioms much airier than those of Mona Lisa, or even of the mellifluously somber Nat King Cole, whose voice introduces the film. Hurling a bouquet like an epithet, tip-toeing through a sauna full of florid raconteurs, driving away at top speed from a clutch of howling streetwalkers, Mona Lisa (via George) makes occasional but indelible contact with its own weird current of electricity, often enough that you can still detect this energy when the characterizations, subplots, and themes are proceeding more modestly, adding themselves up into quieter but still provocative equations.

Individual scenes fail or succeed on their own merits, and maybe what is most lacking in Mona Lisa is a sense of a controlled, coherent whole, which Jordan seems to court at the literary level no matter how strongly he pushes against such an organizing template with his quicker, nastier doses of sensuality or suspense. Mona Lisa's not without its dead ends, bald patches, and dubious gestures, but its best sequences and character beats are wholly gripping, in ways that sometimes feel all the more powerful for how sharply and suddenly they arrive within an inconsistent, atmospheric, good-but-not-great film. It isn't as crafty as The Crying Game in making its stock figures and sleights of hand pay off within a propulsive, coherent package, but it sure comes close—and as is true of its own lead character, the film's shortcomings are almost as fascinating as its isolated triumphs, its unexpected stamina, and its hard-earned breakthroughs. Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
The Criterion DVD of Mona Lisa, itself a badge of overall distinction for the film, probably saved it from being remembered merely as a vehicle for Hoskins' awards-magnet performance. Two viewings have certainly opened up the film for me, and I can more easily imagine the counter-arguments for why Mona Lisa is an even stronger film than I've implied than I can imagine logical justifications for finding Mona Lisa more faulty than I have. While not held in the same kind of reverence as Jordan's earlier, risk-taking Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa nonetheless arrived within a less than thriving moment in British popular cinema. As a broody urban cross-section and as an experiment in tough, skillful, commercially viable manipulations of genre, it landed strongly in its initial release. There's not a lot here you won't see in other movies, and the filmmaking hardly pretends otherwise, and yet the rhythms and the combinations are unexpected and unusual enough that Mona Lisa still feels original, especially compared to a lot of British films produced at the same time, or a lot of nocturnal thrillers cum character studies, then or now.

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Bob Hoskins

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Actor (Drama): Bob Hoskins
Best Supporting Actress: Cathy Tyson
Best Screenplay: Neil Jordan & David Leland

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor (Hoskins; tie)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actor (Hoskins)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actor (Hoskins); Best Supporting Actress (Tyson; tie)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actor (Hoskins)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Actor (Hoskins)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Actor (Hoskins)

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