Mona Lisa Review
George (Bob Hoskins) is a small-time East London criminal just out of prison. His old boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine) employs him as chauffeur for high-class call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson). At first relations are strained between the ex-con and the "tall thin black tart", but affection soon develops between them. Then Simone asks George's help in searching for another prostitute, Cathy (Kate Hardie), and he sets out on a dangerous quest...
Mona Lisa was Neil Jordan's third feature, and something of a breakthrough for him and his leading actor. Soon afterwards Jordan went to Hollywood and made two of his worst films (High Spirits and We're No Angels) before getting his career back on track with The Crying Game. Bob Hoskins won Best Actor at Cannes for his portrayal of the good-hearted but fatally naïve George. He should have won an Oscar as well, but that year the Academy decided that Paul Newman was overdue for one (for The Colour of Money – right actor, wrong film).
Fifteen years on, Mona Lisa still stands up pretty well, despite some flaws. Jordan freely admits in the commentary that he tends to skimp on the aspects of the story that don't interest him, hence some loose ends in his and David Leland's script. Certain plot events hinge on George being in the right place at the right time. In the second half, Jordan leaves out the transitions between some key scenes, assuming (on a first viewing, rightly) that we'll be too caught up in the story to notice. It's only on repeat viewings that the holes in the plot become apparent. Mona Lisa is a bittersweet love story between two characters from different worlds, territory that Jordan would explore further in The Crying Game. The film takes its tone from the Nat "King" Cole song that plays over the opening credits and elsewhere: a mixture of romance offsetting the more sordid aspects of the story. There are a few nods to Taxi Driver (note the headlight-level car shot), with which the film shares the basic theme of a descent into Hell and a rescuing from it. Hell is right: Jordan and his cinematographer Roger Pratt film the King's Cross "meat rack" at night as if it were one of the Outer Circles of the Inferno, all deep blue light and burning fires.
Cathy Tyson, making her debut, is excellent as Simone, and Caine shows how good an actor he can be in a rare villainous role. Robbie Coltrane adds a lot of much-needed humour as George's mate Thomas. Clarke Peters, as Simone's vicious ex-pimp Anderson, doesn't appear much, but does feature in the tensest scene in the film when he attacks Simone and George with a knife in a lift. There are solid performances in brief roles from Kate Hardie and two actresses whose promise at the time doesn't seem to have been fulfilled, Sammi Davis (as a prostitute) and Zoe Nathenson (as George's daughter). Unfortunately, the Genesis song "In Too Deep", presumably included to sell the soundtrack album, dates the film more than anything else.
Mona Lisa was shot in a ratio of 1.75:1, which transfers to 16:9 for this DVD. Unfortunately, and inexplicably considering Criterion's usual policy, the transfer is non-anamorphic. It's a good non-anamorphic transfer, mind you, but considering how much of this film takes place at night or in low light, it could have been better. There's a noticeable lack of shadow detail in some scenes. Jordan had made The Company of Wolves in Dolby Stereo, but with Mona Lisa returned to mono. That's the soundtrack Criterion provide on this DVD, and a perfectly adequate reproduction of the cinema sound mix it is.
The main extra is a commentary track by Jordan and Hoskins. As is usual with Criterion commentaries, the two men were recorded separately and edited together. It's an excellent commentary, thoroughly absorbing with no dead spots. Jordan discusses his approach to making the film, elucidating some of the themes at work (one major one could be expressed as "look but don't touch"). He and Hoskins also discuss the emotional journey taken by George through the film, enlightening in places where the film tends to be vague (quite a bit is left for the audience to infer). The only other extra is the trailer, which is in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 and runs 2:30. There are twenty-five chapter stops. The strong London accents seem to have tripped up whoever wrote the subtitles, as there are a number of errors ("Leave it out, George" becomes "Leave your hat, George", for example).
This disc is recommended for the film alone, being one of Jordan's best and containing a great Hoskins performance. From certain other distributors, this DVD would look better than it does. But from a company with Criterion's high standards, particularly due to the lack of an anamorphic transfer, it's a little disappointing.