Anchor Bay // 1986 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // May 22nd, 2006
Sometimes love is a strange and wicked game...
On one level, Mona Lisa is two very typical stories, wrapped up together. It feels fresh, though, perhaps because it was the influence of so many films that came after it. This is the second time that it has been released on DVD, replacing a very expensive early Criterion disc.
George (Bob Hoskins, Unleashed) is a thug. He has just been released from prison, and violently turned away by his wife when he arrives home. His arrival back at his old headquarters doesn't go much better, since the whole operation has gone (mostly) legitimate, and there is little use for thugs anymore. Out of pity, he is offered a job driving around a high-priced escort named Simone (Cathy Tyson, Priest). At first, this arrangement doesn't work that well, since she is subtle and glamorous and he is, well, a thug. They come to rely on each other, though, thanks to George's loyalty to ex-crimelord Mortwell (Michael Caine, Dressed to Kill) and Simone's need to hunt down Cathy (Kate Hardie, Croupier), an underage prostitute who disappeared into the London underworld.
In terms of plot alone, Mona Lisa isn't very unique. On one hand, it's the story of a mob thug who is released from prison to find that the world has changed. I've reviewed many of those, and I'm tired of them. At the same time, it's a fish-out-of-water love story, about a troubled man who falls in love with an unattainable beauty. Those are a common sight as well, though this film never feels anywhere close to typical.
A lot of the film's freshness comes from the performances, all of which are excellent. This is the performance of Bob Hoskin's career (even better than Super Mario Brothers), and he brings both sincerity and fire to the role of George. George is more than a simple thug, but he doesn't endure hardship out of some sense of honor or duty. Rather, it's his intense loyalty and a sense of protection that keeps him by Mortwell's, then Simone's, side. When he bursts into action we believe that he could take just about anyone, through sheer will and force alone. Simone is the exact opposite, with a sensitive external that hides a hardness and toughness within. She is an enigma, as complex and polished as George is rough and straightforward. Michael Caine's is the other great performance here, despite limited screen time. Long before we meet him, Mortwell hangs over the film like a ghost, an eerie presence that increases once we finally meet him. Like George, Mortwell has needed to adapt quickly to a new world. Also like George, he has not really changed.
Neil Jordan places these rich characters into a very seedy vision of the London underworld. He does a remarkable job juxtaposing Simone's upper-class world with the grimy world of the streetwalkers. Of course, this juxtaposition only highlights the fact that the two worlds aren't that different. Even George, a simple-minded thug, is able to adapt to this glossy world quite quickly. A new suit and a few times out allows him to put on the facade that he is charming and polite. Of course, just underneath that surface remains a bulldog ready to jump at any second. This duality is present in the other characters as well. Simone is glossy and beautiful, everything that the streetwalkers near her house are not. She still does the same job, though, and still needs to be accompanied by a thug like George. Mortwell has also transitioned into a new world, but he is a heartless mob boss at heart still.
A simpler film would suggest that there are no differences between these two worlds and no real changes in the characters. Mona Lisa does allow these characters to change, but not completely. As George changes his appearance and spends time with Simone, he does start to change. The George at the end of the film is not the simple thug he is at the beginning. Simone has changed as well, since she was once one of the crude streetwalkers and doesn't remotely resemble them anymore. Mortwell is able to hide his rage most of the time, and appears to be transforming into the businessman he desperately wants to be. It's Jordan's assertion that these characters change and remain the same that makes Mona Lisa so fascinating and rich. His cinematography plays off this complexity, with incredible use of reflections and obstructions to create visible layers and hidden truths.
This new DVD from Anchor Bay represents a solid transfer of the film. The image is relatively sharp and clean, with hardly any dirt and no visible compression errors. The print looks a bit faded after 20 years, but that's to be expected. Although I've never seen the Criterion edition, I'm willing to bet that the sharpness and anamorphic enhancement make the Anchor Bay a stronger choice. The sound is presented in the original mono, and it sounds about as good as mono ever does. The real downfall of the disc is a complete lack of extras. This is such a valuable and influential film, and an 8-page booklet just doesn't cut it.
With the overpriced Criterion disc as the only option, many people will have either held off purchasing Mona Lisa or have never gotten around to seeing it. Now is your chance, and you shouldn't pass it up. It has held up tremendously well over time, and it shouldn't be missed -- even without any special features.
I won't be sending George back to prison. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2006 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R