Friday, December 24, 2010

#107: Mona Lisa

(Neil Jordan, 1986)

Mona Lisa belongs to two crudely constructed genres which generally don't thrill me: the performance film and the slice of vaguely noirish cinema in which naive men become exposed to the dark sexual habits to which women often fall victim. The latter - to which a massively wide-ranging quality of films belong, including everything from Taxi Driver to the recent joke/surprise hit Taken - can often be either oppressively dark or weirdly fetishistic. Taken, for example, revels in the male fantasy of protecting untainted girls from the evil grasp of the rest of the horny male sex, all while pretending (albeit very vaguely) to condemn conventional concepts of sex and gender power dynamics. It's a "have your cake and eat it, too" style of filmmaking that, sadly, can be easily well received by the general moviegoing public (worst of all, Taken was especially popular among women). On the other hand, Taxi Driver, of course, leads to the destruction of civilization, to the point where even any kind of redemption that can be taken from Travis Bickle's final moments is difficult to carry under the weight. (Side note: I feel I've been comparing really amazing movies to really awful movies a lot recently.)

Mona Lisa, fortunately, avoids both of these conclusions, instead depicting an entirely realistic and extremely moving climax which avoids both exploitation and hopelessness. A big part of this success can be attributed to Neil Jordan, who manages to make the film moody without being mannered, and generally paints a melancholy but redemptive picture of London as a noir capitol. But most of the success can go to Bob Hoskins, who is simply stunning and heartbreaking as George, an ex-con who slowly falls in love with the prostitute he's charged with driving around town to her various johns. There aren't a whole lot of performances that spring to mind that can compare to Hoskins here, who is understated and controlled where his character from The Long Good Friday was oversized and full of fire.

It's easy to compare the two movies, really, since both are British noir films starring (really, entirely focused on) Hoskins. But Mona Lisa has none of the religious baggage the earlier film had (here, I guess, it's mostly sexual) and though it lacks the energy that carried The Long Good Friday through to its climax, it makes up for it in personal stories that carry far more weight and simply feel more relatable. Even if it takes some time to get going, it's a very strong picture, one of Jordan's best, and even though I usually shy away from movies that center around one major performance, Hoskins makes Mona Lisa a must see.

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