Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa opens with a shot of one of London’s many bridges at dusk. Crossing that bridge with a sense of urgency, and clutching a large yellow envelope is George (Bob Hoskins), a man just released from a seven-year jail sentence. Playing from the film’s soundtrack, oozing with schmaltz is Nat King Cole’s eponymously titled song from 1950, “Mona Lisa”. That song, though it cannot be made clear from the opening credits, but seeing how it is heard in snippets throughout the remainder of the film, holds some sort of significance. George, for one, has a penchant for this type of music—that song in particular. It says something curious about him, because he’s a rough-edged man, and his swift movements indicate a proclivity towards wild, unexpected outbursts. What he lacks in stature he more than compensates with in intensity. But beneath this gruff exterior is a real softy—a romantic who embodies every tender strain of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa”. “Mona Lisa”, both the song and the painting, serves as a parable for the object of George’s affection: a young, high-end call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson), whom George is hired to drive around from job to job. She’s charming, as every prostitute in her class should be, and is every bit as feisty as George, easily holding her own against him. And just like the famous painting, “Mona Lisa”, possesses some mystery behind her meek smile. Mona Lisa is a gritty, convincing, and lurid tale of love drawn from the dregs of society. While its story is not an uplifting one, it’s a very thoughtful film, and there are enough shocks and surprises to keep you thinking about it for a long time afterward.
The greatest strength of this film is in the performances. Bob Hoskins in particular is a real dynamo, and his performance is the kind that will leave an indelible imprint on your memory. While watching him, it occurred to me just how regrettable it is that actors of his appearance and stature would never get leading roles such as this anymore. The role of George is that of a blue-collar criminal, and a Cockney at that. Bob Hoskins is a perfect conceptual match for this character. Pair that with the merits of his performance and it gives the film an air of authenticity and believability which is absolutely necessary to be convincing. The same can easily be said for the rest of the cast. Cathy Tyson, who surprisingly remained an unknown after the release of this film, exudes just the right amount of each thorny emotional ingredient to account for the baggage that makes the character of Simone both a tragic one and an enigma. It’s understandable that her experience as a prostitute, having been ruefully abused by her pimps and heartlessly objectified by her clients has led her to resent the male sex as a whole.
The initial relationship between George and Simone is a prickly one. She’s used to dealing with an upscale clientele, and accepts George, with his shabby clothes, bloody marys, and uncouth manner with noticeable irritation. He accepts with reluctance her offer to provide him with a new wardrobe to match the classic white Jaguar he’s been provided to drive her around in. Gradually they warm up to one another, and George bubbles confidingly to his mechanic friend, Thomas (a very young Robbie Coltrane), his growing affections. When Simone urges George to help her locate a fellow prostitute whom she vowed to protect, her motives appear to be quite obvious. Where the truth lies, however, gives the story so much more dimension. The world in which George enters into in his search for this young girl, Cathy, is one that makes clear George’s mettle. He’s a fearless individual, for sure, but not an unfeeling one. Having to witness first hand the plight of these young girls, many of who are underage, we see that George is horrified. This of course is compounded by the fact that he is also trying to reconnect with his daughter, who is in high school. His sense of disgust is further extended when he learns of the direct connection between Simone’s missing friend and his employer, the slimy Mortwell. Mortwell, whose screen time is few, is effectively played by Michael Caine. Caine has so seldom played villains, and yet he’s so naturally adept to it that it’s a large wonder why he hasn’t accepted the undertaking more often. Mortwell is an incredible sleaze, and the nonchalance in which he approaches his sordid business dealings would have to be reflected in the face. Caine does this superbly with those phlegmatic eyes of his and wry smile. When George’s devotion to Simone crosses with his obligations to Mortwell the film’s climax is both shocking and provocative. Throughout the film you clearly feel the plot moving towards some sort of culmination, but Simone’s ambiguity keeps you guessing as to what the nature of that culmination will be. The pacing is good throughout, and the climax is delivered to maximum effect.
Mona Lisa does what every good movie should do: tell a story, devoid of sleekness in excess and pretension, and allow you to experience that story through the vividness of its characters. This is indeed a gritty story, and it is presented with biting realism (reportedly, real prostitutes were used for the scenes filmed at King’s Cross in London). It’s that unabashed sense of realism that, in addition to the great performances, draws you into the story. Mona Lisa is a film that deserves to be exhumed from the shelves.