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Mona Lisa Smile: Review

As the first reels of Mike Newell's ("Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Enchanted April") latest offering, "Mona Lisa Smile," begin unfolding an early 1950s American story, one felt, now, there goes "Goodbye Mr Chipps" or "To Sir, with Love." A few sequences later, Newell's film took one back to what seemed like Enid Blyton's school adventures. But "Mona Lisa Smile" turned out to be something beyond these, though the emotional poignancy in "To Sir, with Love" is a strong feature in Newell's work too. Look at the final shot where the Wellesley College girls on bicycles accompany their teacher as she cabs away from her own dream of furthering the art of looking beyond tradition.

Julia Roberts (somewhat miscast as the teacher or maybe Newell wanted an academic Erin Brockovich) steps out of the train at the New England campus of the college carrying with her the free Californian spirit and a steely will to encourage her all-woman class to see beyond a Van Gogh or other classic works of art.

It is 1953, and America is enjoying the first flush of a truly post-war ecstasy, which, unfortunately, is confined to tradition. It is a scenario where an engagement ring on a girl's finger is considered a bigger prize than the pursuit of knowledge or a desire for a post-graduate degree.

When Katherine Watson (Roberts) provokes her students to question archaic values which glorify them in the role of a housewife she hits a wall that is not entirely made up of the college administration and the faculty. There are some bright young women as well who treat Wellesley as some sort of a finishing school.

Questions such as why is an original Van Gogh a work of art and a reproduction not one make the movie's narrative almost gripping. And its message, you can bake a cake and eat it too, may have seemed radically feminist in the 1953 Wellesley, but today it can well mean a certain kind of balance. Interestingly, Miss Watson herself conveys this: she does not quite dispel her dream of being swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Yet, the independence and self-assurance that she displays are enough for her to be termed subversive.

However, "Mona Lisa Smile" must be seen as a film that travels beyond the obvious. In Watson's art history classes, which inspire the screenplay's most intelligent writing, she challenges her students to do more than simply identify paintings shown in slides. Let us not forget here that the early 1950s also brought the ascendance of Abstract Expressionism. And, the appearance of a Jackson Pollock canvas on the campus stirs up ripples of controversy.

"Mona Lisa Smile," despite its syrupy feel-good emotional trap and a degree of shallowness, proves that these can be masked by an interestingly written script and a committed acting style. Roberts may be miscast, but she performs to a fair degree of satisfaction. Three of Hollywood's bright young stars Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal play Wellesley seniors with captivating finesse. There were times when one felt that they were a tad better than Roberts, or was the Pretty Woman being gracious? Of the lot, Dunst was the most impressive as the elitist student bent on marriage and on wrecking Watson's life.

At a little over 90 minutes, "Mona Lisa Smile" is undoubtedly worth seeing.

(This review appeared in The Hindu dated March 26 2004)

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