Release Date(s)1986 (September 14, 2021)
Studio(s)HandMade Films/Island Pictures (Criterion – Spine #107)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Mona Lisa, a tale of low-level criminals of the London underworld, is a dark portrait of the shadowy figures that populate that environment, seamy and violent but with an unusual love story about desperate neediness.
George (Bob Hoskins), recently released from prison, goes to mob boss Mortwell (Michael Caine) looking for a job. He hires the short, balding, boorish George to chauffeur tall, striking, elegant black prostitute Simone (Cathy Tyson) to expensive hotels and private homes, wait while she conducts business, and protect her if anything goes wrong.
Their relationship is initially contentious. With his garish clothing and uncouth behavior, George is conspicuously out of place in the lobbies of plush hotels. Simone is not pleased to be saddled with this misfit and is not subtle about how she feels. She thinks him crude, socially inept, and unmanageable. He thinks her arrogant and cruel. They fight about practically everything. They seem to be a match made in hell.
After a while, however, George, whose ex-wife has denied him a relationship with his daughter, finds in Simone a woman to protect and care for while Simone finds in George a guardian who doesn’t resort to his fists in his treatment of her. They eventually collaborate in the search for a young friend of Simone’s who is being forced to work the streets by a ruthless pimp. George drives Simone, argues with her, tries to figure her out, and eventually falls in love with her.
The underlying theme is the efforts of George and Simone to transcend their thankless lot in life. All the major characters take on facades to project the respectable, dignified lives they long for—George as well-dressed gentleman, Simone as regal call girl, and Mortwell as honest businessman. Director Neil Jordan paints a gloomy, depressing milieu laced with unexpected violence, degradation, and social ostracism. They are the dregs of life and, despite appearances, know it.
Hoskins (The Long Good Friday) has the ability to be tough while showing vulnerability. His George is a man longing for love but aware that his physical appearance isn’t exactly an attraction for the opposite sex. In Simone, he sees a damaged soul, much like himself, and comes to believe they may be destined for each other.
Tyson is an elegant, statuesque beauty who towers over Hoskins and is compared in the film to the Mona Lisa painting. Her looks are her meal ticket and she knows how to showcase them to attract a wealthy clientele. Bright, independent, and fiercely self-protective, she has learned to survive through street smarts and hard knocks. To her, George is a bumbling amateur and resents him as more a hindrance than a protector.
The film is slow going at first as it leads into the growing relationship between protector and call girl. The thriller element eventually is revealed and we come to see how much danger they’re in. The script by Jordan and David Leland shows how both George and Simone change and are affected by unforeseen developments with their lives at stake.
The best aspect of Mona Lisa is the relationship between George and Simone—hot tempered, prickly, antagonistic, dismissive, funny. The characters are extremely well developed and director Jordan manages to elicit empathy for two individuals from the wrong side of the tracks. However, the film takes a bit too much time early on, it has some scenes that don’t click, and there could have been greater concentration on building suspense. Its ending is anti-climactic and not entirely satisfying. It owes much to classic film noir, yet never achieves the down and dirty payoff one expects from noir.
The Criterion Collection digital transfer for Mona Lisa was created in 2K 1080p resolution and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer was supervised by director Neil Jordan and cinematographer Roger Pratt. Images are crisp and nicely delineated. The color palette varies from dark and shadowy in seamy nighttime street scenes to brightly illuminated interiors of the hotels where Simone meets clients. The hotel lobbies are elegantly appointed and lush. Flesh tones are pleasing and back lighting is effective in having actors stand out from dark backgrounds. Clarity is excellent, with details of Simone’s clothing, George’s facial stubble, and Simone’s Afro particularly sharp. The depiction of masses of prostitutes propositioning passing drivers on a bridge captures the sordidness of this part of London. Simone’s outfits suggest class as does her make-up. She doesn’t have the cheap look of desperation of the prostitutes who work the streets.
The soundtrack is English 1.0 LPCM. Optional English subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear, though it might take a while for Americans to accustom our ears to the regional British accent. Dialogue, ambient noise, and music are well balanced. Gun shots and the sounds of people fighting are “sweetened” for dramatic effect. Nat King Cole sings the title song under the opening credits, setting the mood for the wistful romantic drama to follow.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary from 1997, a new conversation with Jordan and actor Cathy Tyson, interviews from 2015 with the film’s co-screenwriter and producer, an interview with Jordan and Hoskins from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and a booklet containing a critical essay.
Audio Commentary – This commentary features director Neil Jordan and actor Bob Hoskins. Mona Lisa centers on George, who’s just been released from jail after 12 years. He’s a lonely, isolated man in a metropolitan city—London. Jordan remembered the song Mona Lisa from his childhood and chose it because it represents the emotion of the film. The first 20 minutes of the film are composed of “snippets that give you an impression of what has happened in the past.” Hoskins refers to George as a man who could have led a normal, boring life if he hadn’t turned to a life of crime. George embarks on a journey to make himself whole. Simone becomes George’s center, though they have mismatched emotions. There is simplicity to George’s emotional search and the questions he asks and the answers he hopes to find. Basically, George is “an ordinary, inarticulate man, but a good man.” Jordan enjoys movies that have a fairy-tale quality and operate on more than one level. He also enjoys working with actors. When an experienced actor (Hoskins) works with a newcomer (Cathy Tyson), you get unexpected surprises. Hopkins says that he and Tyson quickly developed a shorthand in their working relationship. Jordan was going for a “heaven in hell” feel. Actual prostitutes were combined with the actresses and they all got along well together. The actresses were always “picking the brains” of the prostitutes to make their portrayals authentic. As the film progresses, “it becomes more shady in its elements.” George comes to regard Simone as an icon but the story he has been concocting for himself suddenly breaks into reality. The final shot of the film mirrors a scene in The Wizard of Oz and suggests that Mona Lisa is a fairy tale, if a somewhat gritty one.
Jordan, Tyson & Gilbey Interview (29:14) – This interview with actor Cathy Tyson and director Neil Jordan was moderated by UK film critic Ryan Gilbey and conducted on Zoom from Ireland and London in Spring, 2021. Tyson had watched Mona Lisa recently and been emotionally involved, but also laughed at certain parts. Jordan saw Tyson in a play, was impressed with her acting and her elegance, and offered her the role. Jordan needed someone with an enigmatic aura. Tyson hadn’t thought about doing films. She had a lot of stage experience doing Shakespeare. Jordan notes that 90% of a film’s success is in the casting. Tyson was a fresh face on the screen at the time. On stage, she depended on dialogue and felt awkward, making the film, with the pauses between lines needed for an effective screen performance. Jordan directed her to be natural—less is more. Some actual peep show girls were cast as extras. Jordan got the idea for Mona Lisa from a newspaper article about a pimp who claimed to be a protector instead. Tyson says that at her current age, she can identify with Bob Hoskins’ George. Jordan likes working with newcomers because they haven’t been “tainted” by tricks and simulated emotions. Tyson credits Jordan with teaching her about screen acting. Though it attracted popular and critical acclaim, “we made the film under the radar.” There was some controversy about Tyson, a black actress, playing a call girl, but she doesn’t regret doing the film because Simone is not an overly sexualized person. The interview concludes with Jordan and Tyson speculating as to what might have happened to the characters they played.
David Leland Interview (19:02) – This interview originally appeared on the Arrow Films edition of Mona Lisa in 2015. Co-writer David Leland notes that the outline he was given by Neil Jordan was very simple and he was told the central character would be played by Michael Caine. Jordan worked on Leland’s draft and then gave it back to him. This procedure was followed as drafts went back and forth, sometimes after long gaps. A major sticking point was finding a workable ending. When the lead character was switched to actor Bob Hoskins, the focus became what George’s idea of a Mona Lisa was. There was a tone of dark humor throughout the script. Leland believes the collaboration with Jordan was productive because Jordan has a poetic element to his writing. Leland does his best work with a creative collaboration. He was surprised how little screen time Michael Caine had. The film portrays a “dying breed of criminality.”
Stephen Woolley Interview (13:38) – This interview also originally appeared on the Arrow Films edition of Mona Lisa in 2015. Producer Stephen Woolley was conscious of the scope of London. Jordan once lived in London “on the lowest level.” Jordan used seamier areas of London for locations. George’s and Mortwell’s worlds portray two views of London. Director Jordan worked closely with cinematographer Roger Pratt to select filming locations. Woolley discusses actual locations in London where prostitution proliferated at the time. David Leland’s original treatment was tougher and more violent than the completed film. The idea came out of London at the time when gangsters were perceived to be ordinary businessmen yet were into drugs, prostitution, and pornography. A theme that becomes evident is that “there’s no honor among thieves.”
Jordan and Hoskins at Cannes (10:48) – These interviews took place at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival on the eve of the premiere of Mona Lisa. The film would receive a nomination for that year’s Palme d’Or and a win for Bob Hoskins for best actor. Director Neil Jordan wanted to make a straightforward, powerful film. The film is about a hopeless love affair and a man who would never understand women. Jordan says he couldn’t direct a film that didn’t permit him to change dialogue. Though George has an easy freedom, he is trapped by his growing infatuation with Simone. Jordan aspired to give the film an operatic feel. Mona Lisa comes out of the tradition of movies about the London underworld. Hoskins says there is a similarity between George and himself at a certain point in his life. Jordan does not like films devoid of human emotion. The film is a look into a sordid world, though George and Simone are not sordid individuals. America represents commercial success, Cannes represents artistic acknowledgment.
Booklet – The accordion-type booklet contains an essay by film critic Ryan Gilbey, color portraits of Bob Hoskins as George and Cathy Tyson as Simone, cast and crew credits, and details about the film’s digital transfer.
Mona Lisa is a blend of crime thriller, drama, and romance, with deft touches of humor. Hoskins and Tyson each have good moments allowing them to shine. Tyson’s call girl is multi-layered and doesn’t fall back on easy cliches and Hoskins’ small-time thug has heart as well as muscle.
- Dennis Seuling