Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Mona Lisa Smile
Director: Mike Newell
Writer: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, John Slattery, Topher Grace
Seen on: 10.12.2022

Katherine (Julia Roberts) is a young and enthusiastic art professor who managed to get a job at the prestigious and very conservative Wellesely college. There, young, bright women like Betty (Kirsten Dunst), Joan (Julia Stiles), Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) are getting an education basically to pass the time until they get married and become houswifes. Katherine does not want to accept that. But her challenges to the students and their ideas are not necessarily met with enthusiasm.

Mona Lisa Smile is an engaging film with a great cast. But its feminist message might be hampered by the fact that it was written and directed by men.

The film poster showing Katherine (Julia Roberts) smiling, and smaller the heads of Betty (Kirsten Dunst), Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Mona Lisa Smile is a deft examination of this kind of conservative mindset were women are there to support the male leaders and make their careers possible. A mindset that still persists today, albeit in a more insidious fashion. That Katherine wants to challenge that is certainly a good thing, and that she does so by engaging her students with modern art that is all about challenging entrenched notions is an interesting angle that works very well for the movie.

The cast is really fantastic. Julia Roberts shines, as usual, and Harden is dryly funny, and Dunst, Stiles, Gyllenhaal and Goodwin make for a convincing team of students, each in her own way. That the characters are well set-up to give us different perspectives on tradition and women’s roles in it, is also a very nice structuring element in the script.

Katherine (Julia Roberts) giving Joan (Julia Stiles) and a couple of other students an art lesson.

But the devil, as they say, lies in the details, and in the details, the film loses sight of its feminism. So, the film makes it a point to say that some women just choose the traditional life, even when they have other options. That is true, but the film fails to consider the pressures put on them to make that choice and none of the others. The film also gives Katherine a steamy romance with Italian professor Bill (Dominic West), despite her knowing that he sleeps with students. The feminist thing would have been to tell him to go fuck himself, and not fucking him until even more dirtbaggery is revealed, as if a professor sleeping with students is some kind of small faux-pas. In fact, that Katherine has to have a romance at all despite everything else going on around her seems like a failure of the filmmakers to imagine that her life could be full without a man. Plus, in a feminist film, I find it rather disappointing that there is no mention of queerness whatsoever.

That being said, and despite of focussing on the plight of rich, white women, the film is engaging and uplifting enough that I did enjoy it. It still has something to offer, especially with the characters in conjures up.

Katherine (Julia Roberts), Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden) and other women riding bicycles.

Summarizing: nice.

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