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The traditional school with an up-start, unorthodox teacher is nothing new in movies, and Mona Lisa Smiles doesn’t bring much to the game in ways of anything different, but nor is it trying to. It knows exactly what the formula requires and plays by those rules all the way through. Julia Roberts plays Katherine Ann Watson, the Art History professor at Wellesley College for women. She’s an odd fit right away. Unmarried, from California, and liberal-minded, she is a far-stretch from the current staff and principles of the institution. On her first day, the girls in her class recite verbatim from the textbook, identifying each and every slide she presents, effectively showcasing their preparedness and academic skills. Watson, perhaps feeling defeated on day one, counters with modern art, and discovers a gap, a chasm really, in how and what the young ladies have learned. They know the rules, studied the labels, and understand the names of everything traditional, but cannot express a feeling and have no skill in being individuals.
Watson takes a room with Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden), who teaches classes on deportment, instructing these women on how to conduct themselves as favorable wives, a value Abbey sees as a job skill and takes very seriously. This is the predominant ambition for all the students, hoping to earn the hand of a Yale or Harvard man and be the dutiful wife. Watson can’t see the reason for how hard the girls study only in hope of abandoning it to tend to a home. This is especially so for Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), who is highly gifted and has scores well enough to study law at Yale yet is waiting for her wealthy boyfriend to propose so she can stay at home. Watson tries to give her more options, to show he she can be both, but this leads to some minor complications. The real problem lies with Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) an antagonistic young woman who is driven to be the defining housewife, scorning Watson’s attempts at subverting the curriculum and the proper female studies. She becomes more and more hostile as the semester progresses, and once she marries, even more so. Watson bitterly combats her at every step, which draws the ire of some of the staff as well. Watson’s liberal approach is making waves and threatening to upset the standard.
Directed by Mike Newell, Mona Lisa Smile follows along on the predictable track from beginning to end, giving the always charming Julia Roberts another role in which to be the “Julia Roberts” character. Believing she is an art history professor is a bit of a stretch, as she still seems fresh-faced enough to pass for one of the students, but she grows into the position well enough that by the end, it feels about right. Roberts is very likable, which makes it easy to stay with her as she battles her way through the semester, catching the eye of the handsome, but somewhat mysterious Italian language instructor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West) while breaking up with her old flame back in California. But surprisingly, and perhaps refreshingly, it isn’t about romance. Newell steers clear of the rom-com trappings and sticks to the girls and their relationship with Watson. This is where the film has its best moments. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Betty Warren (Dunst) is highly conservative and uses the college newspaper to write editorials that are open attacks on those that deviate from the university’s teachings. One such article exposes the school nurse’s unspoken practice of dispensing contraceptives to the girls who ask, which eventually leads to the woman’s dismissal. She sets her site’s on Watson, writing a scathing piece about her teaching style that advocates careers for girls instead of staying at home. It only gets worse from there as the two are more at odds with each passing day.
Because Betty has been so forthcoming in her attack on Watson, the school board and the Alumnae Association want her removed but agree that if she stays she must conform to specific, binding rules, such as adhering diligently to the set curriculum, submitting lesson plans for approval, and most importantly, not offering any extracurricular advice to the students. It’s a devastating blow to Watson and on her final day of class for the semester, presents a lecture that expresses both her passion to her cause and the resignation of her commitment to it at Wellesley.
She demands that the class not speak, instead forcing them to listen only. She shows a series of slides, which is normal, but instead of images of art through history, this time it is of magazine advertisements depicting women in subjugated roles, cooking, cleaning, and wearing proper girdles and bras, all for the men in their lives. It visibly moves the students and dramatically shifts Betty’s perception of her teacher. Betty is experiencing this lifestyle but also discovering that her husband is cheating on her. In this lecture, she comes to recognize the trap she has set for herself.
Roberts really shines here and doesn’t overly dramatize the moment, letting the large images speak volumes and forcing the students (and the viewer) to ask what does it all mean? Of course the young women get it straight away, but not because they don’t already know, but because they are suddenly free to recognize it. The film also is careful to point out that a life as a housewife can also be a choice, even by those that may have other skills, but takes the setting and uses it as an opportunity to expose the way that role can be dehumanizing, and even belittling for women in general if it is thought of and taught as a “role they were born to fill.” It’s a great moment in a rather predictable but entertaining film that features a host of female talent that have gone on to several strong female leads.
Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Stars: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal