A review of “Mona Lisa Smile” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

 

 

The weighty issues of art criticism vie with the meatier ramifications of matters of the heart in this mixed bag of a romantic drama.

Wellesley College circa 1953 wasn’t exactly a hotbed of feminism.  Wellesley’s female students were blessed with brains, beauty, and a single-minded desire for a diamond on the left hand. 

Progressive art history professor Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) isn’t prepared for this archaic measuring stick when she lands on Wellesley’s conservative Massachusetts campus, choosing to encourage her students to strive for a more progressive future.

Watson’s History of Art 100 class is a sensation.  The girls respond to her intellectual challenges and her bohemian spin on painting and sculpture with scholarly gusto. Heady with success, Watson believes she’s making a difference and proceeds to challenge decades of tradition.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  So discovers Watson when she mentors brilliant standout Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) by encouraging her application to Yale Law School, repelled by the notion of a Magna Cum Laude education wasted on pressing hubby’s shirts or preparing the perfect meat loaf. 

The drama isn’t centered solely on Watson and her academic tribulations.  With a silver spoon lodged firmly in her mouth, Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) rails against the concept of change by marrying her Ivy League beau, only to discover that he’s a cheating cad.  Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) endures an illicit on-again, off-again affair with a handsome Wellesley professor (Dominic West), while Watson is concurrently wooed by the “gentleman” in question, forced to choose between love and a passion for her work.

Mona Lisa is a bit of a muddle; comprised of one too many twists and turns.  Its tidy conclusion belies the fact that the film doesn’t know what it wants to be – serious drama, thorny romance, or a searing commentary on the changing times. 

Roberts’ no-compromises attitude is well-suited to the role, and the supporting cast delivers a satisfying measure of enthusiasm.  Stiles, Dunst, and Marcia Gay Harden (as a prissy elocution and poise instructor) are rock-solid, but Gyllenhaal steals the show, shining in a subtly underdeveloped role as the class scoundrel.  Cashmere sweater sets and uptight moral attitudes are refreshing in all their antiquated glory, making for a harmless and semi-satisfying film experience.