ninth symphony films - movie reviews


DIRECTOR  -  mike newell

RATED  -  pg-13

GENRE  -  drama

LENGTH  -  96 minutes

RELEASED  -  19 december 2003

DISTRIBUTOR  -  columbia/tristar

OFFICIAL SITE  -  mona lisa smile

ESTIMATED BUDGET  -  $65,000,000
mona lisa smile - a shot from the film


buy the dvd from mona lisa smile at

buy the dvd from mona lisa smile at

about the impact a novice teacher has on her art history students at wellesley college in the mid-1950's.

the title was once, "as per gloria."


picture from mona lisa smile

picture from mona lisa smile

picture from mona lisa smile


two out of four possible stars

Though it begins with promise and in its first hour will require a few handkerchiefs from the more sensitive members of the audience, in its concluding hour, Mona Lisa Smile doesn't challenge its actors and it doesn't ask enough of the audience in return. Creating a film where all one has to do is, "sit back and enjoy it," is an admirable goal and can lead to an enjoyable film. But Mona Lisa Smile is like what Sanka means to the coffee world. It's a bland cup of coffee without a lot of flavor. Despite the beautiful cast, these talented actresses don't have a lot of emotional material to sink their teeth into once the film gets up and running.

It's mildly confusing, actually, how strangely the film derails after those first tenuous emotional connections are made between the characters. The seeds of possibility are planted with graceful production design and sparkly dialogue, but are left to whither in the harsh, unforgiving winter of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal's baffling screenplay. Perhaps we can blame it on the editing. Perhaps all the best dialogue was left on the cutting room floor. But the production design, music selections, and costuming are accomplished with such authenticity and vibrancy that it's almost like the movie was shot before the script was written. Or that the production design carried more importance than the characters. Like the story was simply an afterthought.

The look and feel of the film, in ways that it doesn't relate to character, represent some of the most realistic production design showcasing the cloying American 1950's that has been put to film in the past decade. Beautiful without being overpowering, the vivid world of the Eisenhower era is an interesting contrast to the "buttoned-down" and traditional society with which the characters must contend. Production designer Jane Musky and costumer Michael Dennison (with some very talented hair-dressers) are a fantastic team, and benefited from a more than competent group of co-workers in the visual design department.

But for all its beauty, the film does a disservice to the characters and the actors by letting down the audience with a weak conclusion. The story progresses in an increasingly erratic way, concluding the sub-plots without enough fire and passion from the characters. Except for the adorable relationship between Ginnifer Goodwin, playing "Constance Baker," and the boyfriend she never thought she'd find, the "character arcs" are depressingly subtle. Though Kirsten Dunst, playing socialite "Betty Warren," makes an impressive last stand with her character, she's really the only person in the film who gets to raise her voice and create some panic. And though she plays an antagonist, her disturbance is a welcome one, since the rest of the characters seem content to simply float through the film looking beautiful.

And those characters who drift so gently include Julia Roberts' character, "Katherine Watson," a progressive UC Berkley graduate who prefers pants to rounded tea-length skirts and on whose personality the film finds its title. At the closing credits, you want to believe that this woman's presence in the lives of the cloistered group of Wellesley students has resulted in some sort of lesson or life changing event, but it hasn't. The subject of art, though interestingly presented, is never approached in-depth and could have benefited from additional "lessons." The film is about a teacher, after all.

Julia Stiles, playing "Joan Brandwyn," pulls off the affected upper-crust accent quite convincingly though her character seems to drop out of focus without suitable fervor. Likewise, Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing the progressively minded student, "Giselle Levy," is also strong for the run of the picture, even if her character is uneven (sometimes she's sympathetic, sometimes she's not). Marcia Gay Harden plays an instructor of elocution and is predictably weepy, as she is in too many of her roles. Topher Grace is Stiles's Harvard boyfriend and though his scenes are few, his presence is welcome. He has one of the most sexist lines in the film and it's slightly amazing how quickly the audience's opinion of him might turn on that statement. Performances large and small are strong across the board, and had the filmmakers been more adventurous, this film might have been truly gripping and emotionally affecting.

But it would be doing both the cast and crew of this film a disservice to say that the film is a forgettable experience, because there is some merit in the social statements the characters recite and challenge. But know that those statements are rather obvious (comments like the sexist idea of confining women to the role of husband's caretaker) and have been presented on film more than once. And though the dramatics in the film could have spiced up significantly, the actors have done their best with the material. Mona Lisa Smile is marginally better than the "usual" Julia Roberts star-vehicle, and might entertain fans of the actors while those who experienced the era will see it vividly brought to life through excellent production design and costuming.

Review by Kelsey Wyatt.

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