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Mona Lisa   B+

The Criterion Collection

Year Released: 1986
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Neil Jordan
Writers: David Leland, Neil Jordan
Cast: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie, Robbie Coltrane.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

In Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, Bob Hoskins plays George, an ex-con who gets a gig as a chauffeur driving around a high-class call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson), who hates him at first. And what sophisticated working girl wouldn't be annoyed by a naïve little thug like George, sporting a tacky Hawaiian T-shirt, waiting for her in the lobby of the Ritz and making a scene because he's not getting any service? He's an embarrassment.

But George is pretty adorable in his naïveté. Once their relentless arguing subsides, George and Simone start to like each other. Little moments like George tidying up Simone's appearance by straightening her coat before she's off to meet another client are pretty darn touching. It's not long before George starts to fall in love with her.

Then comes the proposition. Simone wants him to find a friend of hers, a teenage prostitute she fears is still under the wing of a violent pimp. So George descends into the nightmarish London underworld, trying to find a 15-year-old prostitute -- a girl about the same age as his own daughter, who he doesn't get to see much (since he got out of prison, his wife wants nothing to do with him). The underbelly of London in Mona Lisa recalls the New York of Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The seedy whorehouses, porn shops, and the dark streets littered with underage prostitutes and scumbag pimps. It's a kind of hell on earth, not a place I'd like to visit.

Bob Hoskins is the driving force behind Mona Lisa. If he weren't so damn good in this, it just wouldn't work. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, George is in every scene of the movie. We see everything as George sees it, experiencing everything as he does. And Hoskins slips into the role beautifully (well, Neil Jordan did rewrite the script with Hoskins in mind), showing us a guy who's tough on the outside, but is dying from loneliness on the inside. Hoskins has some powerful moments here, especially near the shattering climax. Cathy Tyson is in strong support as Simone, while Michael Caine is perfectly slimy as the mob boss who is their employer.

Mona Lisa is a tough movie to categorize. It's a character study, but it's also a thriller and a dark love story. Hell, it's even pretty funny from time to time. One scene of violence is punctuated by a surreal bit of humor, as a couple of midgets imitate a fight that happened just a moment before. Director Neil Jordan likes to sprinkle oddball little surprises like this along the way.

The only major gripe I have about the film has to do with the ending, but Neil Jordan talks about this issue during the DVD audio commentary. I don't agree with him on it, but hey, it's his movie. And it's still a damn good one.

Mona Lisa is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection and Home Vision Cinema in a beautiful widescreen digital transfer. The sound is monaural, but it sounds great (you just have to listen carefully to make out all the dialogue because of those Cockney accents). The theatrical trailer is included on the disc, as well as an audio commentary with Neil Jordan and Bob Hoskins. It seems that the actor and director recorded their commentaries separately, however, as it switches back and forth throughout.

If you're a Neil Jordan fan who has yet to see the unique work he was doing prior to reaching widespread fame with films like The Crying Game and Interview With the Vampire, you owe it to yourself to seek out this neglected gem.

Review published 04.02.2001.

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