Eye For Film >> Movies >> Mona Lisa (1986) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
In the early Eighties, Neil Jordan was best known for Angel and for his outspoken comments on the controversial subject of the Irish troubles. His decision to make a film rooted in the seamier side of London came as a surprise, but on watching it one can immediately see the connections. Jordan has always been fascinated by those on the margins of society. He has an awareness of social complexities that seems to pass most filmmakers by, and here he shows that he can apply the same gaze to the complexity of human emotion.
Bob Hoskins may at first glance seem an unlikely romantic lead, but that only makes his performance here more potent; it won him numerous awards. He plays George, an ex-con unable to find work who is offered a position as a driver by former criminal associate Mortwell (Michael Caine). There's a catch, of course. The woman he's driving around is a high class call girl and Mortwell wants him to spy on her, finding out what she's up to with a wealthy businessman. George dislikes the idea of being involved with sex work but, despite himself, gradually warms to Simone (Cathy Tyson). She has a dignity he respects; she's beautiful and brave and not without heart. But Cathy has an agenda of her own.
Agreeing to help this enigmatic woman leads George into danger. More dangerous still are the feelings he begins to develop. Simone makes men fall for her on a professional basis. Her friendship seems real, but how much else can he really know about her? How much of what he sees is really her, and how much is art?
Packing a late-stage twist which unbalances everything that has gone before, Mona Lisa is a thriller that will really keep you guessing. It's gritty and grim in traditional British style but this gives it a pleasing authenticity. Jordan is perfectly capable of dazzling us with beauty when he wants to; the drabness of the day to day world he depicts only adds to its impact and to the poignancy of its central characters' yearning. Any danger of it slumping into sentimentality is undercut by Caine, whose bouts of viciousness are terrifying to behold and yet utterly believable.
Underneath this are deeper themes. The men are actors in the direct sense, albeit with different levels of agency. Simone's only power comes from her ability to manipulate men. Both she and George are survivors in a brutal world, but both have survived partly by keeping secrets, and the self centeredness this requires - with their different senses of entitlement - may make it impossible for them to truly understand one another. There's a sense here that, no matter what happens, everybody will ultimately end up alone.
Noirish and troubling, Mona Lisa is a film whose secrets seem harder to discern the more one looks at it. It's not the ultimate example of the art, but it's well worth viewing.Reviewed on: 10 Aug 2012