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Film Review: Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Mona Lisa Smile stars an ensemble cast led by Julia Roberts who plays a 1950s art history professor at elite New England ladies’ college, Wellesley College. Fresh-faced and newly displaced from sunny, progressive California, Katherine Watson (Roberts) shakes up the conservative system by challenging her students to aspire beyond traditional roles for women and to be as open and critical about new art as they are for their own lives. Among the many bright, young scholars are the snooty and vicious Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), the promiscuous and worldly Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the high-achieving and contented Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), and the plump and unlucky-in-love Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin). Rounding out the cast on the teaching side, Marcia Gay Harding plays a poise and elocution teacher and Dominic West is a suave Italian professor who romances both students and faculty alike.

The almost all-female cast is absolutely stellar in their various roles. Each character is emotionally well wrought and has a unique journey that intersects well with the others but can also stand brilliantly on its own as realistic stories of women. As essentially a women’s movie (even though the director is Mike Newell), Mona Lisa Smile has time to allow each of the many characters to live out their own lives and to confront each other with their own views about womanhood and to choose what is right for their own lives outside the gazes of men. What is also wonderful is how diverse the choices of the characters are and how they are challenged and resolved.

Aside from the captivating story, the mid-century backdrop and Katherine’s modern art history lessons are delightfully engaging. Retro touches like having episodes of “I Love Lucy” in the background and cosy academic details like theatrical first day traditions and all-male, shirt-and-sweater-vest acapella groups are great things to include as well as a heart-stopping scene with one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. And, of course, the costumes and sets! So lived in and naturalistic, yet unmistakably of-the-time. For a period drama about stuffy, young WASPs, Mona Lisa Smile is well written, perfectly paced, and beautifully made.

5 out of 5 paintings by Chaïm Soutine

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