[MOVIE REVIEW]Behind the smile, a satisfying story“She made up for in brains what she lacked in pedigree.” So begins “Mona Lisa Smile,” with a retrospective voice-over, as Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) arrives at the infamously conservative Wellesley College in 1953 to teach art history.
The school’s opening activities show us America’s brightest women ceremoniously knocking at the door of knowledge; then we see a professor introduce herself as a teacher of “speech, elocution and poise.” Next, Katherine swallows back bile as she tries to make it through her first lecture, only to discover that her students already knew everything she had planned to say. “Long way from Oakland State?” one asks her snidely, driving home the stereotype of the WASP-y snob at Wellesley.
From the beginning, then, the film is not-so-subtly setting itself up for a confrontation between tradition and liberalism, lineage and intellect, homemaking and academia. But what looks to be building up to a trite black-and-white attack on feminine ideals and expectations in the 1950s actually turns out to be a surprisingly satisfying story.
The film takes place over one year, during which four seniors and their progressive new teacher are dealing with relationships and romance in very different ways. Joan (Julia Stiles) is passionate about her Harvard boyfriend, but has wistful dreams of Yale law. Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as bad as Wellesley girls get, fancies herself a free-spirited lover, though her facade of indifference about a triste with her Italian professor is wearing thin. Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the archetypal good-natured and innocent friend, shyly waiting for the day a man will take notice of her, and Betty (Kirsten Dunst) is a sharp-tongued protege of her very proper mother, preparing herself for the “perfect” marriage.
The majority of the tension in the film is generated by Betty, an editorial writer for the school paper who doesn’t hesitate to condemn a school nurse who gives out contraception as a “cheerleader for promiscuity,” much less Katherine for “teaching girls to reject the roles they were born to play.” Betty embodies the institutionalization of 1950s feminine norms, and it is ultimately her transformation at the end that keeps the film within the boundaries of the usual discourse. Still, the film manages some depth.
Critics have widely likened this movie to a “Dead Poets’ Society” for women, but Robin Williams’s character in that film was liberating students right and left with the untouchable righteousness of a savior. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, is thankfully not cast as a one-dimensional paragon of the subversive in the face of Wellesley propriety. On the contrary, as Katherine fights harder to buck the system, she encounters a series of checks that humanize, and ironically feminize, her ideals.
The film begs the question: are women today any more free of social norms and expectations just because they have shifted from child-rearing to stylish success in the workplace? Isn’t freedom to choose restricted by the expectation that one will make the “right” choice? And for whom?
Toward the end, the girls present Katherine with a series of their renditions of Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” from a paint-by numbers kit she had used in a lecture. Each painting is formulaic, and at the same time unique, a paradox that sums up the spirit of the film.
Mona Lisa Smile
Drama / English
by Kirsten Jerch
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