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The DVD case reads Neil Jordanís Mona Lisa, but it could just as well read Bob Hoskinsí Mona Lisa because so much of the movie depends on his intense central performance. Recently released by The Criterion Collection, Mona Lisa is a potent reminder of how gifted Hoskins is, how he effortlessly commands the screen, how his lack of conventional leading man charm seems to work for him. This is perhaps his best screen performance. It won him Best Actor at Cannes, an Oscar nomination, and several criticís awards. In a movie that often shows its age, Hoskinsí performance stands out as a sturdy and timeless presence.

The movieís title refers not to the famous painting but to the idea that some people will always remain partially concealed, an enigma, no matter how much scrutiny is applied. Hoskinsí character, George, is such a person. For much of the movieís first act, we know almost nothing about him. Through snippets of conversation, we can deduce that he is a petty criminal just released from prison. He has a wife, who has divorced him, and a teenage daughter whom he visits at school whenever he can. George takes a job as a chauffeur driving high class call girls around London. One of the call girls is named Simone (Cathy Tyson). She works the upscale hotels, but each night she tells George to drive her to Kingís Cross, a Thames bridge teeming with low rent hookers. Why Simone is drawn to this underworld remains a mystery; she, like George, is an enigma, and her full story is revealed only at the end.

DVD cover artwork for Mona Lisa.
[click photo for larger version]

Narrating on the commentary track, which is comprised of excerpts from a 1996 interview conducted by The Criterion Collection, director Neil Jordan explains how he rewrote much of David Lelandís original screenplay to fit Hoskinsí screen persona. The part of George was originally intended for Sean Connery, but in the rewrite, Hoskinsí short stature, cockney accent, and baldness become integral parts to Georgeís character. Painfully ordinary, George exudes a noirish sensibility that at times seems at odds with the movieís contrived plot. George, whoís falling for Simone, becomes entangled in her plot to rescue a long lost friend named Cathy from the grips of seedy pimp/impresario Mortwell (Michael Caine, in full-on sleaze mode). With its obvious homage to Taxi Driver, the screenplay works better than it should as a kind of neo-noir exercise fitted for an '80s audience.

In one sequence that could have been darkly malevolent, George searches Londonís porn district for Cathy. His voyage through various strip bars and sex clubs is set, however, to Genesisí "In Too Deep" which gives the entire sequence a frivolous pop sheen. (Jordan explains how the movieís financiers, fearing the dark subject matter, pressured him into including the song.) The final scene is also incongruously light-hearted. George is seen walking arm in arm with his daughter and best friend (Robbie Coltrane), the three of them skipping off in a reference to The Wizard of Oz. The scene could be viewed as ironic, or a hallucination, but Jordan assures us that he wanted a happy ending even though he is at pains to explain why.

Publicity photo for Mona Lisa.
[click photo for larger version]

The most convincing scenes in Mona Lisa are the improvised ones, and viewing them with the audio commentary, itís clear that they are also the most emotionally nuanced. When George impulsively rescues Simone from one of her kinkier clients, Hoskins (who also provides audio commentary) explains how he came up with the idea of having George and Simone sit on the bed back to back. Unable to look each other in the eye, their positioning mimics their mutual inscrutability. In a later pivotal scene set on a boardwalk, George and Simone wear childrenís sunglasses as they confront each other over Cathyís fate. The sunglasses were an idea Jordan devised on the set as a way of concealing their eyes . With their fluorescent colors, the sunglasses succeed at making George and Simone look ridiculous at a point in the story when both have sunk to their lowest.

With its impossible love between a criminal on the rebound and a mysterious black prostitute, Mona Lisa resonates as a harbinger for Jordanís 1992 feature The Crying Game. Simone often feels like an early sketch for The Crying Gameís Dil: both are sexually ambiguous, both have missing lovers, and both exact a bloody revenge by the movieís end. Simoneís expensive outfits are something a drag queen might wear, though her ability to tower over Hoskins provides a more convincing case for her asexuality.

Mona Lisa was Jordanís first international success. He followed it up with Dance with a Stranger and then two failed Hollywood pictures before finding his beat again in the early '90s. A novelist turned filmmaker, Jordan has never distinguished himself as a visual director, but he does point out certain subtleties, such as the use of steam in certain scenes and the bold use of mirrors. His greatest weakness, he admits, is his tendency to lose interest in certain aspects of the story heís working on, and true enough, certain characters in Mona Lisa are too casually dispatched. Still, the central relationship between George and Simone remains seductively vague throughout, a testament to Jordanís mastery of romantic complexity and Hoskinsí ability to navigate a sea of dark emotion.


Mona Lisa is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a widescreen transfer (aspect ratio 1.77:1). The disc includes audio commentary by director Neil Jordan and star Bob Hoskins. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.