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George is a tough, yet also warmhearted small-time mobster recently released from prison. He agrees to chauffeur Simone, a high-priced prostitute. She enlists him to search for her closest friend, another prostitute named Cathy. During their time together, George slowly falls in love with Simone.
For more about Mona Lisa and the Mona Lisa Blu-ray release, see Mona Lisa Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on August 22, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie
Director: Neil Jordan
» See full cast & crew
Mona Lisa Blu-ray Review
Or, Driving Miss Prozzie
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, August 22, 2010
The Mona Lisa's smile has confounded viewers for 500 years. Just what does that slim smirk mean? (I've always thought it looks as though she's reacting to a dirty, but not particularly funny, joke.) To men, the enigma of the Mona Lisa can be equated to the mystery of all women, particularly those who attract us. We think they're beautiful, but we don't understand them, and in our misunderstanding, we tend to project our own desires upon them. We try to read into their expressions and actions—in the same way that admirers of Da Vinci's painting posit their own interpretations of that wry smile—imagining them to be a certain way, to think certain things. But imagining doesn't make it so. Many a relationship has been ruined by men who mentally create a false, unrealistic, and unobtainable persona for their partner. This idea is at the thematic center of director Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, a 1986 neo-noir that evolves into a psychologically perceptive unrequited love story.
In The Long Good Friday—also being released by Image Entertainment on the 24th—Bob Hoskins plays the kingpin in London's criminal underworld, a head honcho trying to broker a massive land development deal. In Mona Lisa, he's George, a squat, low-level henchman who has just been released after seven years in the clink. His wife has left him, forbidding him to see their daughter, and with no real prospects, he returns to Mortwell (Michael Caine), the mob boss that he used to serve—and who turned his back on him when he went to prison. George is assigned to be the driver for Simone (Cathy Tyson), a "tall black tart"—that is, prostitute—who got her start working the streets in London's seedier districts. Now, though, she's an upscale call girl, visiting her clients in posh hotels. Part of George's job is to be her cover, her "reason" for being there. If she thinks management might suspect she's a prozzie, she can simply join George in the bar for drinks. The only trouble is, George and Simone don't get along. It probably doesn't help that George dresses like a pimp—floral shirt and gold medallion included—when he should be in a suit and tie to avoid suspicion. Out of their initial hatred of one another, however, some fondness grows, especially after Simone buys George a new wardrobe. George even starts to fancy her, but of course, this leaves him emotionally vulnerable.
Seeing that George is someone she can trust, Simone recruits him to scour London's seriously seamy underbelly—it's underground peep shows and dingy sex shops—to find Cathy (Katie Hardie), a young prostitute that she used to know back in her street walking days. From here the film follows a classic recipe for noir. Simone is the femme fatale our protagonist falls for, his infatuation clouding his better judgment. Cathy is the woman—or, in the case, the young girl—who's in desperate trouble, beaten daily by Anderson (Clarke Peterson), her slimy pimp, and forced to "service" old men with nasty fetishes. And while George does his gumshoe act, snooping around strip clubs populated by sallow, rough-looking women, Michael Caine's Mortwell lords over London's sex trade, a dangerous bastard you don't want to cross. Director Neil Jordan is known to explore strange, psycho-sexual relationships in his films—see The Crying Game or Breakfast on Pluto—and Mona Lisa is no different. Simone is essentially an S&M mistress, and as a prostitute, she's used to molding her personality to fit her clients' wishes. This attitude inevitably bleeds into her "real" life. George—who, despite his gangster career path, is a good man at heart— doesn't realize that the way Simone treats him is also an act. He risks his life for her, expecting perhaps that he'll be the one to whisk to her away from her less-than-reputable profession, but he doesn't get much in return.
The plot invites clear comparisons to Taxi Driver—George's attempt to help Cathy, a 15- year-old prostitute, mirrors De Niro's quest to save an extremely young Jodie Foster—but Mona Lisa is a gentler film, less prone to poeticized violence and focused more intently on the love/hate relationship that develops between George and Simone. And this is handled with considerable insight into the psychological dynamics of would-be romances. George unhealthily constructs an idealized version of Simone in his mind, and she—whether knowingly or unknowingly, it's never made explicit—uses this to her advantage, playing along and using George to carry out a task that would be too dangerous for her to personally undertake. The perceptiveness of the script is matched by tight pacing and bravura performances. Once again, Bob Hoskins is fantastic—he landed an Academy Award nomination for the role—bringing emotional nuance to a part that could've easily devolved into a flat mobster stereotype. Cathy Tyson, in her film debut, is a contradiction, and everything she needs to be: caring and aloof, beautiful and cruel, genuine and manipulative. And in his relatively small role, Michael Caine exudes real menace and danger. But it's not all so serious. For comic relief we have Robbie Coltrane—better known today as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films—who plays George's best friend, a tinkerer who sells novelty items like polystyrene spaghetti imported from Japan and illuminated neon-green Virgin Mary statues. He's just odd enough to seem real and helps give the film its Hagrid-sized heart.
Mona Lisa Blu-ray, Video Quality
Like the other HandMade titles being released on the 24th by Image Entertainment, Mona Lisa sits on a single-layer, 25 GB Blu-ray disc, with a small file size and a low bit-rate. Extrapolate from this what you will, but subjectively, the film's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is far from ideal. There's a good deal of compression noise on this disc, and not just during the darker scenes—although nighttime sequences look worst, as blacks are covered by a chunky mix of artifacts, film grain, and, at times, slight macroblocking. The film is noticeably in high definition—and there are occasionally crisp moments where it's easy to spot fine texture—but most of the time it looks very soft and indistinct. Although there's certainly more detail here than was present on the Criterion or Anchor Bay U.K. DVDs, the difference isn't drastic. Color is nicely balanced and reproduced, though, with strong reds and a generally realistic palette. Black levels are never truly satisfying, however, this is mostly due to the noisy compression problems and not a contrast-related issue. I can't help but feel that Mona Lisa—and the other HandMade titles being released—could look a lot better.
Mona Lisa Blu-ray, Audio Quality
This is odd. The back of the case claims that Mona Lisa has a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, and my PS3 confirms as much, but I can't recall hearing anything in the rear channels during the film. I even popped in a different movie afterwards to make sure my speakers were functioning properly. This track isn't front-heavy, it's front-exclusive. It's better, then, to think of this as a 2.0 mix, and as such, it sounds okay. Obviously, the ambience and immersion you expect from a 5.1 track is missing, but otherwise the film has a strong, well-balanced blend of music, effects, and dialogue in the front channels. Aside from a light hiss that accompanies a few scenes, the track is clean, dialogue is easy to understand, and there are no fatal drop-outs or crackles. English SDH subtitles are available in easy to read white lettering.
Mona Lisa Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Unfortunately, aside from a theatrical trailer (SD, 2:32), this Image Entertainment disc contains none of the special features available on the Criterion or Anchor Bay U.K. releases of the film.
Mona Lisa Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
For all its prostitutes, sex shops, and seedy underground peep shows, Mona Lisa is a surprisingly tender neo-noir that explores the way men project their desires on women and the way women can feel obligated to conform to men's expectations. Like The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa features a terrifically nuanced performance by Bob Hoskins, who proves once again that gangsters in movies can be more than just tough guy stereotypes. The film could probably look a lot better than it does here—the transfer is soft and filled with compression artifacts—but if you're a fan who doesn't own the DVD already, you might want to consider picking this one up. Just don't expect much, from the transfer, the audio, or the supplements. Image Entertainment made a huge score in procuring these HandMade film titles, but I wish they had put together releases with better transfers and more (or any) bonus features.
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