Image Entertainment // 1985 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 24th, 2010
Sometimes love is a strange and wicked game.
"And that's the whole story?"
George (Bob Hoskins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) is a small-time crook who's just been released from prison after seven long years. Fortunately, he still has some old contacts on the outside that are willing to give him work. George is given a job as a driver for a high-end prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson, The Serpent and the Rainbow). Their relationship starts out on a rather challenging note, as George's working-class clumsiness clashes with Simone's carefully moderated professionalism. However, as time passes the two become friends. Slowly but surely, George begins to develop feelings for Simone. He begins to investigate her life and the world she lives in, leading to a series of very dark and unpleasant secrets.
Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa is a surprisingly gentle story about people who live rather hard lives. Almost everyone in this tale is some sort of criminal, prostitute, pimp, or killer, but all broken people are not created equal. It seems that time in prison has softened George, who still associates with a lot of unsavory types but whose life seems overwhelmed by regret. When we first meet him, he's attempting to go home to visit his ex-wife and daughter. He's greeted coldly and told to leave, which he responds to by swearing loudly and kicking over nearby trashcans. His life is marked by small frustrations, as his attempts at decency are constantly thwarted for one reason or another. Initially it seems as if Simone is going to be just another frustration making his life miserable, but when that starts to change we begin to see such joy in George's eyes: here is someone who makes him happy.
The nasty world in which the film takes place helps distract from the fact that Jordan's story begins as an entirely formulaic plotline we've seen so many times before. Two people hate each other and then start to develop feelings for each other? Get outta town. Fortunately, the film is more than a typical romance set against an atypical canvas. As Mona Lisa enters it second half, we veer into surprising and less predictable territory. Just as things were starting to look warm and fuzzy, it seems that everyone's life starts to get dragged back into the abyss by the unstoppable forces of the universe. As the film inevitably descends into tension and violence, we find ourselves more invested than usual because Jordan has taken a great deal of time ensuring that we really know who these people are.
The film wouldn't work half as well as it does without the considerable chemistry between Hoskins and Tyson. Their mutual frustration early on seems to come from a place of honesty rather than from the screenplay's desire to place them in conflict, and the sweet manner in which their relationship develops from there is equally convincing. Hoskins is particularly superb as George; it's no wonder the film earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. There's such vulnerability and sadness beneath his crass exterior; a yearning for human affection. Even his nasty behavior towards Simone during the dock scene late in the film isn't rooted in cruelty so much as intense loneliness. Tyson is effective in her role, though the nature of her part requires her to remain rather enigmatic for much of the film's running time. Michael Caine also has a handful of memorable scenes as the heavy looming over the lives of both characters.
Jordan is in fine form, adding slight touches of artful polish to a film that mostly stays rooted in unrelenting realism. I love the way he uses the song "Mona Lisa Smile" not to accentuate the romance but rather to underscore the sad emotions beneath scenes that may seem unpleasant on the surface. There's a particularly strong musical moment near the end in which Michael Kamen's score presents a frenzied, desperate variation on the song as two characters run for their lives. It's the entire film summarized in a brief moment: tenderness and affection attempting to stay ahead of violence and brutality.
Mona Lisa arrives on Blu-ray with a less-than-masterful 1080p/1.85:1 HD transfer. It's one of those dingy, drab '80s films that's always going to look kind of flat regardless of the amount of work put into cleaning it up, though it has to be admitted that the transfer could have been a bit stronger. Occasional flecks and specks can be found, along with bits of grime. Even so, the level of detail is reasonably solid despite moments that look pretty soft. Blacks are fairly deep and shading is solid. Audio is acceptable, though I couldn't help but notice that the track is a good deal quieter than most of the other Blu-rays I've seen (my speaker level is generally somewhere between level 28 and 35 on most films; this one required me to take it up higher than 40). The dialogue is clean, but Michael Kamen's score sounds a bit wobbly at times. The only supplement on the disc is a theatrical trailer. This is disappointing, given that the previous Criterion release contained a commentary with Jordan and Hoskins.
Mona Lisa is a moving, well-crafted film, but this Blu-ray release isn't really worth the upgrade. Still, if you don't already own the film, the price is right (the disc retails for $17.99 and can be found for considerably less than that).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R