in Criterion Month, Review

Mona Lisa (1986)

Sometimes Criterion Month feels like school. I watch a slow, long, sad foreign film and then have to bang out a half-assed essay at the 25th hour. The experience is usually rewarding, but it feels like eating your vegetables too. Which is why I get low-key excited when I get to watch a movie like Mona Lisa. There’s no pretension here. Just a schlubby Bob Hoskins wandering around London to a Phil Collins’ song. Now that’s my kind of movie.

There aren’t enough movies that star guys like Bob Hoskins. A meat and potatoes actor in every sense, Hoskins never set out to be a star. He didn’t even have acting aspirations until one day in 1969 when he went to meet a friend at an audition. Hoskins was handed a script and told to go next and he just did. Surprisingly, he was a natural and became a popular actor on the London Theater scene in the 70s.

It’s unusual that a stocky, balding, short, Londoner became a leading man, but when you’re that good it’s more than deserved. I’d watch him in anything. Throw Neil Jordan into the mix and you got yourself a stew going… This is England so I imagine there’s some mutton in there too.

Neil Jordan has a gift for complicated love stories. The Crying Game is the most obvious example. Though I’d throw in Kirsten Dunst’s awkward undead crush on Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire as well. Even Ondine (which is a film that doesn’t exist) has some of that. So Mona Lisa is right at home.

Hoskins plays George, a gangster who after finishing a seven year stint in prison, goes back to his old boss Denny (Michael Caine) for work. Denny gives George a gig as a driver and bodyguard for a high class prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson) affiliated with the organization. In addition, Denny hopes this position will give George an opportunity to gather info on a rival of Denny’s.

Though at first disgusted by the crass and brutish nature of George, Simone warms up to George. She discovers that he does have a soft side, particularly in his attempts to rekindle a relationship with his pre teen daughter Jeannie (Zoe Nathenson). George quickly in love with Simone and becomes closely involved in her personal business.

Simone is eventually comfortable enough to ask George if he can help her find her friend Cathy (Kate Hardie), another prostitute who has gone missing. George sets out searching for Cathy across London, ignoring his responsibilities from Denny, causing a rift. He eventually locates Cathy and in a very Neil Jordan twist discovers that Cathy isn’t just Simone’s friend, but her lover.

Though heartbroken, George still wants to help Simone reunite with Cathy and get them out of the business. This action leads to a faceoff with a violent pimp named Anderson (Clarke Peters) and Denny, who doesn’t want Simone to leave. The climax is a violent but rewarding set piece that sets things right and inspires George to move on from the organization.

What I liked about Mona Lisa is that it wasn’t as concerned with plot points as it was with building these characters. The mystery of finding Cathy is fairly simple and every character’s motivation is clear. So for the most part you can just live in this world and enjoy these performances.

Speaking of performances, what a treat to get so many underrated character actors in prominent roles. I didn’t even mention that George’s best friend Thomas is Robbie Coltrane. Watching those two burly legends shoot the shit while eating spaghetti is a real treat. Or how about an early pop in from The Wire’s Clarke Peters? Had no idea he was making movies back then, let alone British movies. Really apart from Michael Caine this whole thing is a vehicle for talented character actors.

This is a simple one so I’ll keep it short and sweet. If you like Hoskins and if you like a little romance you’re gonna like this movie. It doesn’t feel like school. This movie is more like a weekend. So kick up the Phil Collins and enjoy.