Directed by: Mike Newell
Written by: Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal
A plucky individual defies expectations and sets out to challenge a social inequality. Their mission is spelled out for viewers, particularly in a few rhetorically dramatic scenes.
That vague description speaks to the nature of numerous Oscar-bait films, as well as one film in particular: Mona Lisa Smile. That film is the story of Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), an art history instructor who arrives at Wellesley (an all-women’s small liberal arts) College in 1954 and instantly gets off on the wrong foot.
I mention Mona Lisa Smile’s Oscar-baityness, because it is a quality that can put off viewers just as easily as it seduces award-nominators. I, for one, often find that Oscar-bait films are so expository in stating their sociopolitical theses, that they lose their cinematic magic. I do not feel like I am watching characters engaged in dramas, but mere actors reenacting mundane essays. Mona Lisa Smile is indeed a mundane essay. But unlike the worst baity films, it doesn’t simply try to heartwarm via its messaging. Instead, and rather effectively, Mona Lisa Smile centres itself around its characters.
Katherine Watson’s story revolves around her being a modernizing rebel. She’s an unmarried woman with an education and career, who admires the works of non-realist painters like Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollock. But, interestingly, she does not start the film as an outright rebel. Watson only asserts her interest in modern art when, in her first (traditional) lecture, her precocious students overwhelm her by encyclopedically naming everything on her slides and essentially asserting that she is not smart enough to teach them.
From a twenty-first century perspective this is a fascinating scene. I’m used to a college-experience where numerous students avoid doing their readings altogether, let alone come to classes with the entirety of their texts memorized. Frustratingly, the academic strength of Watson’s students is never directly referenced again. Instead it is used: a) as a springboard for Watson to introduce modern-artists that force her students to think rather than memorize and b) as an ironic contrast to the fact that many Wellesley students would simply become housewives after graduating, instead of putting their hyper-academic-strength to work.
The film goes on to explore Watson’s attempt to win over her students, four of whom: Betty, Joan, Connie and Giselle (Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Ginnifer Goodwin and Maggie Gyllenhaal) become the film’s secondary protagonists. The film’s ambitious commitment to telling numerous stories keeps it compelling and makes its conclusion truly touching. It is also, however, the culprit behind the film’s baity feel. In order to advance the plot, the film quickly rejects the implications of that first class: that all of Watson’s students are precocious and hard to reach. Joan, and Connie are portrayed as kind souls who quickly embrace Watson’s methods, while the sexually-liberated Giselle has even more reason to do so. While all of these characters have touching scenes (the comparatively low stakes of Connie’s subplot, I would argue, are particular essential to the film’s success), there is a chance some viewers will find their scenes to be to feel-good and not sufficiently organic.
Mona Lisa Smile focuses on a part of sexism’s history that is specific enough that it will prove new to many viewers: the idea that, in the 1950s, even elite colleges pushed women towards traditional gender roles. At times, the pacing of this exploration is questionable. In an attempt to add nuance to its story, the film’s plot forces Katherine to accept (eg in a scene where is lectured about it by her boyfriend) that one of her students genuinely wants to be a housewife. While I don’t reject the premise that some women might prefer household work to having a career, the film’s simplistic both-sides-ism ignores that it is possible for an individual to claim they are making a free choice, even as their freedom is constrained by coercive social norms.
But as I’ve said before, Mona Lisa Smile manages to make up in character work, for some of its shortcomings in political analysis. The film’s “antagonist” is the soon-to-be-married Betty, who uses her connections and position in the student press to advocate for social-conservatism. Betty’s portrayal is illustrative of the fact that socially-conservative ideas aren’t just maintained by unthinking stooges, but also by troubled intellectuals.
The actual Mona Lisa’s smile is not something an ordinary viewer would notice. Its uniqueness is something non-art-historians have to be taught to see. Mona Lisa Smile is not as subtle as Mona Lisa’s smile. Its celebration of rebellious women academics is plain as day. Then again, maybe there’s more to the movie than its thesis. Perhaps there is a subtler smile between its lines.