Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is a progressive art history teacher who has just taken up her new post at Wellesley College in New England in 1953. At the all-girl college Katherine is eager to educate bright young students for future careers but learns that the college is old-world-conservative and the girls are more interested in getting married and keeping their husbands happy and their houses clean. Katherine becomes frustrated and believes that the college is little more than a finishing school.
The students are initially hostile towards their new teacher but Katherine’s forward ideas, coupled with her enthusiasm start to win them over…
Mona Lisa Smile has been described as a female version of Robin Williams’ Dead Poet Society, in which an English teacher inspires his male students. The description is fair and will give you a good idea of what to expect. The theme of both film is to think for yourself, open your mind, consider and question. In Mona Lisa Smile the young girls are being moulded into future wives and hostesses. Their new teacher wants to encourage academic success for future careers and for her students to break from the traditional female roles of 1950’s society. In this respect the film captures the mood of the period very well and the period detail is excellent. However, it is not particularly enlightening as female roles have obviously changed over the years and perhaps in 30 or 40 more years a peek back to the 1950’s will be more interesting when the period is more distant.
The film has a few faults. Firstly, it is quite predictable and the story is heavily signposted from the start, with no surprises. Secondly, there is a feeling that the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Is it serious drama, romance or a commentary on a changing era. It’s a bit of all of these elements and perhaps this weakens the impact of the film.
One thing that can’t be faulted is the acting. There is a top notch cast in Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts leading the way. Kirsten Dunst is great as bitchy student Elizabeth Warren. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles and Ginnifer Goodwin also put in good performances as members of Katherine Watson’s art history class.
Marcia Gay Harden plays a lonely teacher of deportment who trains the young girls in their role as future homemakers, mothers and wives.
Dominic West plays an Italian teacher at the college and provides the male interest for Katherine Watson and some of the students!
The Bottom Line: Great cast and period detail but the ‘inspiring teacher’ has been done before and it’s a little predictable.