Mona Lisa (Anchor Bay) Review
In Mona Lisa Bob Hoskins plays George, an ex-con, recently released from prison after 7 years. Although we find out very little of his past in the film, it seems a reasonable guess that things have changed a lot for him since he went to jail. The opening scene shows George attempting to re-connect with his family – his wife and teenage daughter. The former rejects him and he's left to find refuge with best friend, Thomas (Robbie Coltrane). George is naïve, an incipient racist surprised at the number of ethnic residents in his old street, and also emotionally stunted – unable to connect to anyone properly. Lost and almost alone in the world, he seeks out his former employer, who promised to 'take care' of him on his release... and he finds that things have changed somewhat there too. We don't know what 'work' George was previously carrying out, but operations have now shifted and he's told to drive a call girl from hotel to hotel.
The prostitute, Simone (Cathy Tyson) finds George garish, rude and oafish. He thinks she has ideas above her station. The fact that they dislike each other so much at the start signals that this film will be about a developing friendship, and it progresses that way for some time. Simone grooms George for his role, George begins to develop an affection for Simone that he soon believes is love. They become unlikely friends, thrown together by chance and soon Simone is telling George of her concern for another prostitute, Cathy, whom she believes is still being kept badly by her former pimp. Simone then asks George to help her to locate Cathy by going where she cannot: into the sex clubs of Soho. The prospect of being able to help the woman he loves propels George into a search through the seedy streets and clubs of London, his obvious distaste and awkwardness showing at every stage of the search. Of course, part of this is because Cathy is only a few years older than his daughter (as are many of the girls he sees standing on the streets, peddling their bodies for money).
The film is a journey of self-discovery for the main character, as he searches for Cathy and finds his 'emotional core' (in Neil Jordan's words). Sometimes slow-paced, the film is a deep character study and works very well. There are sterling performances from the entire cast. Cathy Tyson, in her first role, gives Simone a cold elegance. Bob Hoskins is superb and fully deserved his Academy Award nomination, and his Best Actor Award from Cannes – without his performance the film certainly would not be as gripping as it is. Add to this a charming performance by Robbie Coltrane as Thomas, a loyal friend with an interesting taste in nicknacks and a way of communicating to George through recounting detective stories. Michael Caine plays George's boss, a nasty piece of work played with amazing restraint yet displaying all Caine's potential as a bad guy.
So, there's an excellent cast (rounded off by Kate Hardie, Clarke Peters, Zoe Nathenson and Sammi Davis) and an interesting story. Because Jordan rewrote the script once Hoskins was cast, the screenplay fits the character beautifully; the writing generally is very tight and skilful. The film itself is atmospheric, moving between the smart London hotels and a darker side of the city that invokes a hellish aura. As the film progresses, so do the characters – what starts as a gentle character study evolves into a thriller as George begins to piece together all the parts of the puzzle he's been thrust into without any prior knowledge... as does the audience.
The picture here is anamorphic. The transfer is probably as good as can be expected for a film of this age, and has a slight graininess to it, which may be more to do with how the film was shot than the actual transfer process (yielding an 1.85:1 aspect ratio). The tonal quality is very good, especially the blacks, and the depth of colour is all the more important in such a film, where much of the action takes place at night and it's important to be able to distinguish between all of the dark hues used.
The DVD does not include the previous mono soundtrack for the film. Instead we are presented with a 5.1 track, which helps to draw you into the atmosphere of the movie, making good use of the background music and keeping voices distinct. It's not an action film by any stretch and the back speakers don't get a thorough workout, but where they do kick in, it really does add to the film.
Neil Jordan and Bob Hoskins contribute an audio commentary, which could well be the same as that on the Criterion disc. (I haven’t heard that one, but the one on this disc also sounds like the two were recorded separately and then combined.) Neil Jordan does the lion's share of the talking, while Hoskins only comments where he has something particularly relevant to say. It's an interesting commentary that deals with things like why we know so little of George's history, why the Genesis track 'In Too Deep' was used (as it turns out, to detract from the sexuality of George's visits to the sex clubs of Soho), the casting and writing processes and various anecdotes from the filming.
In addition to the commentary there are a couple of interviews, the first is from Film '86 which the BBC has given permission to be included on this disc. It lasts just over five minutes and focuses mainly on interviews with Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine. There are also a few glimpses of the filming process – which are definitely nice to have. The second segment is of Neil Jordan being interviewed during the Cannes Film Festival. Again he talks about the casting and the writing process, with different information than that included in the commentary so it's a worthy addition to the features. He also spends a little time discussing The Company of Wolves and talks about future projects.
Another feature is a video recording of Nat King Cole singing 'Mona Lisa', filmed in 1965, again for the BBC. It's a lovely rendition of the song and an interesting and surprising addition to the DVD.
Onto more standard features, the makers of this disc have taken great care and exhibited innovation in the cast and crew biographies. Instead of static screens of textual information, filmographies scroll fluidly up the screen while background music from the film plays. Cast bios are static however, though this is welcome when there's a lot of information to get across and you don't want to spend hours reading them.
The picture gallery also uses an innovative presentation method. The song 'Mona Lisa' plays while sepia pictures of scenes from the film and publicity shots glide in, hover in the centre and fade up to colour (until they look a little over-coloured) before moving on and allowing the next image to slide in.
The extras conclude with the original trailer for the film, which possibly gives away a little too much of the story and therefore is perhaps best left until the film has been watched.
I didn't see Mona Lisa when it was first released, so this was my first exposure to the film. As such, I'm pleased to report that it comes across well in this format. The story is interesting and engaging, the characters are well defined, the acting is superb, and although the movie falls between genres (and as such it's a little hard to put a finger on how to best describe it) it unquestionably works. The DVD treatment by Anchor Bay is excellent for a film of the late 80s. The special features add a lot to the package and seem just as good as the ones included on the Criterion version (though I don't want to be controversial about this, as previously stated I haven't seen the Criterion disc – although you can read the DVD Times review of it here).