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"I had a middle class, suburban upbringing - which I loathed. I kept my sanity by watching old Hollywood movies on the tv, where everyone was beautiful and had great emotions, and all the staircases had 400 steps."  -New Zealander Martin Wells, co-writer, co-director of Desperate Remedies
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Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) leaves a boyfriend and California for the staid New England campus of Americaís most uppity, bright young womenís college, Wellesley, to teach art history to the class of Ď53. The tradition bound campus isnít ready for Katherineís independent spirit, still awash in a male dominated era when women cook dinner for hubby by 5. Husbands are the main prize, not a brilliant career. Watsonís challenge backfires, and she has to confront her motives for wanting to liberate the girls in her class.

Review by Louise Keller:†
A highly enjoyable story about finding your place in life, Mona Lisa Smile explores the subtext and the real emotions that churn below the glossy surface. Set in the 50s, at a time when women aspired to marriage and the marvels of a washing machine, Julia Robertsí protagonist Katherine raises questions and eyebrows, as she sets out to make a difference. Mike Newellís adept touch nurtures the material and takes us on a satisfying journey in which we learn that happiness is different things to different people.†

Ah yes, the mystifying and enigmatic smile of Leonardoís most famous lady on canvass has inspired songs, sonnets and discussion; what dark secrets lie behind the illusion of contentment? Just as the faÁade to maintain appearances was maintained in Todd Haynesí Far From Heaven, Mona Lisa Smile tackles a similar issue.†

And with the worldís most bankable movie star in the driverís seat, flashing her dimpled smile that totally illuminates the screen, we are in good hands. Roberts wins our hearts by displaying great vulnerability Ė her face is so transparent: we feel every emotion that she feels. But there is more than one dimpled smile to watch for, thereís an outstanding female cast portraying characters whose stories and relationships we keenly follow.†

Kirsten Dunstís Betty believes that life as promised by her snobbish mother, is just a matter of getting married and living happily ever after. When the bubble in her perfect world bursts, her frustration and devastation are channelled destructively, making sure that if she canít be happy, then no one else will be either. I especially enjoyed Julia Stilesí Joan, who finally discovers her heartís true desire; Maggie Gyllenhaalís sexually progressive Giselle is simply superb and Ginnifer Goodwinís Connie takes us on an emotional up and down staircase, as she discovers the pitfalls of love.†

Marcia Gay Hardenís emotionally barren teacher of poise and elocution steals many a scene, teaching students how to cross their legs, and the scene when she unravels in the company of the barman and a Manhattan is especially memorable. Dominic West makes an appealing leading man, and itís refreshing that the story doesnít take us where we think it will lead. Rachel Portmanís distinctive music has a light touch and thereís a terrific combo of tunes from the era, including Barbra Streisandís rendition of the Charlie Chaplin song Smile. Just like the painting, the film is lovely to look at, but itís the emotions behind the smile that have the most appeal.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Mona Lisa Smile has Chaplinís Smile sung by Barbra Streisand over the end credits in one of my least favourite arrangements of the song, over-worked and slowed to a funereal, maudlin, faux-poignant beat. That, and the too-clever use of the song title in the film title symbolises the flaws in the film, which override its many achievements; the underlying theme, or melody, is interesting, but the treatment, or arrangement, is not.†

The Smile and Mona Lisa references point out the filmís concern with what is beneath appearances. Is that a real smileÖ.? But the story vehicle (set in the early 50s) is a throwback to the old feminist arguments of the 70s, with nothing new to say. Never mind that, old truths can be refreshed by new angles, sparkling dialogue, edgy direction, snappy editing, great story, cool music and terrific performances.†

Mona Lisa Smile manages to tick just one of these boxes: the latter. Indeed, the performances are so good I almost like the film. This is a fabulous line up of female acting prowess, and Julia Roberts is but one of the ensemble of character actors like Kirsten Dunst, Julia Styles, Maggie Gylenhaal, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, Ginnifer Goodwin. Nobody stands out Ďaboveí this particularly splendid crowd. The few men involved donít fare well, but thatís the scriptís downfall, not theirs. The filmís failure to enunciate time, the haphazard storytelling and the trite dialogue breeds ennui not energy. It ends up feeling like a forced smile.

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CAST: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Styles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Topher Grace, John Slattery and Marcia Gay Harden.

PRODUCER: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff

DIRECTOR: Mike Newell

SCRIPT: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal


EDITOR: Mick Audsley

MUSIC: Rachel Portman


RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 19, 2004



VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Col TriStar Entertainment

VIDEO RELEASE: August 18, 2004

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