Cinema Signal:

The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems

. "Mona Lisa Smile"

The muse of art and good filmmaking didn't smile down on this parade of 1950's fashion. It comes off as something someone found in a lost trash bin of 1940's "B" movies. It also suggests that these fine ladies who inhabit the plot don't have better things to do. Too bad for them.

Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) checks in for the semester at Wellesley college to teach a bit of art history. This starts us off at a peak of drama because this is, arguably, the most conservative college in America and she's from the Bohemian enriched enclave known as California. But, whether the reputation that has followed her has a grain of truth or not, she's about to come up against it with her first class.

This proves to be a battleground between a teacher trying to give her students an appreciation for art by following their own creative vision rather than from the printed words in an art history text, and a class of superior, smug women whose object in life is to pursue marriage within their comfortable station as soon as they graduate. The term "career" is enough to send any one of these debs into a fit of revulsion.

Prof Watson, however, doesn't bend easily when she's up against such an impregnable wall of accomplished opposition, however. She improvises her presentations to nudge self-satisfied minds to an original thought and a bit of depth. It quickly becomes manifest that she's chugging against the tide and, wouldn't you know it, she even gets fired for trying. You don't go off curricula at this aristocratic institution.

By the time the stern president of the college Jocelyn Carr (Marian Seldes) has had enough of the avant garde ruler bender and gives her the axe, the girls, catty little socio-political competitors for the most part, have bonded to her and come to her defense. It almost reaches the point where one or two might be influenced just a smidge. So... well the resolution is pretty much on a par with the rest of it. Try for all it might, a "Mr. Holland's Opus" it never becomes.

Which makes it a pretty big waste of potentially terrific talent. My favorite of the lot is Maggie Gyllenhaal who as the sexually forward seducer of handsome professors does tend to inject some dramatic dynamism into the scheme and opens a window on what is emerging as her preference in roles. Her "Secretary" was a masterpiece of audacious dedication to sexual exploration. Now that this die is cast, one might expect a great deal of more progressive sex play from this splendid vixen.

Julia Styles plays the heady heavy, the symbol of Katherine's success or failure, with typically powerful but somewhat off-putting self-assuredness. Another of the poodle-skirted debutantes is Kirsten Dunst, limning the part of Betty who narrates the piece without a chance of ressurecting it into an object of full engagement. Marcia Gay Harden is present as a faculty underdog and limited confidant of our struggling protagonist.

Julia Roberts, in that role, at times seems hesitant, unsure, assertive and unsteady. She's done far better in other roles where the dynamics were better understood or more within her grasp. Try as she does to move beyond the strict lesson plan, she doesn't rally the kind of charismatic leadership that the role, and the success of the film, begs for.

While the story scripted by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, directed by Englishman Mike Newell, can be taken as an important vehicle to keep these ladies in the eye of mainstream assemblies, it's arthritic issues and pushy point of view add up to a grade that won't earn anyone here a Hollywood diploma.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Julia Roberts, art professor, and students

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