Mona Lisa Smile
Set in the early American 1950s, the film deals with the fate of women in a very confusing reality – in the 40s encouraged to fill the jobs left by their husbands in the army, then in the next decade persuaded to give up their professional lives and become dedicated housewives instead. Enter Katherine Watson, new art history teacher at Wellesley College, a nonconformist not only in her approach to art but to social pressures as well.
Influenced by her example is a group of students, and we follow four of them over the course of one academic year. I see the multitude of subplots as both a strength and a weakness, since on the one hand it provides a fuller picture of the epoch, but on the other the film lacks a distinct main plot and as a result is not as engaging as it could be. Nonetheless, the supporting cast is brilliant and if there’s one thing Mona Lisa Smile made me want to do, it is to watch Maggie Gyllenhaal’s entire filmography. What adds realism to the story is including not only women who choose independence but also those who are happy to fill a traditional role of a stay-at-home mother. Ultimately, it is not about how they decide to live their lives, but about having the freedom to choose.
The reason why I was left feeling underwhelmed is how the film sometimes tends to show black-and-white characters and conflict instead of exploring all the subtleties. It is also repetitive in certain aspects, be it the scenes with live music or with the conservative college president. After all, I expected a film about breaking the barriers to be less traditional in its style.
Watching Mona Lisa Smile is two hours well spent. The acting is good. The conclusion is wholesome. You might feel sentimental about the university life you used to have two months ago. But the film was released quite a while ago and it really does not feel ground-breaking when watched today.