Mona Lisa is one of the most achingly haunting films I've ever seen. I watched it for the first time in a movie theater in Boston. I was alone (I often went to films alone in my youth) and glad to be because I was crying throughout the film, but especially by the end of it.
This 1986 Neil Jordan film (two years prior to Who Framed Roger Rabbit) was my introduction to British actor Bob Hoskins who plays the lead role of George, a man just released from prison, George has just done seven years for some unknown offense, apparently taking the fall for his boss, played by effectively nastily by Michael Caine.
George is uneducated, uncouth, politically incorrect and a fashion disaster. And yet, despite his running with a criminal element, it’s apparent that he possesses a fragile innocence and a deep caring nature.
The first thing George does when he is released from prison is to try to see his daughter which you can imagine does not go well. So early on we see George is given to fits of violent outbursts. But it is violence born of frustration not malice. Not that that excuses it, bit it serves to make George such a wonderfully complex character. Hoskins’ performance in this film is so moving it’s painful, but utterly beautiful to watch.
George has a fascinating relationship with his best friend Thomas, played by Robbie Coltrane now better known as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. Thomas dabbles in selling odd art pieces and fixing cars, but the two friends talk to each other in and about stories. It’s interesting to watch and you always have the feeling you’re not quite being let in on all that passes between them.
Hoskins asks his old boss for work and he is given the job of being a driver for elegant prostitute Simone, played exquisitely by Cathy Tyson. He begins to fall for her and helps her to find a friend who works for the same pimp she used to. He puts his life on the line for her more than once. In the process, he also tries (and fails) to help another young prostitute he meets along the way. And he begins a relationship with his daughter.
I don’t want to give the entire plot away. You’re just going to have to see this film. And I warn you it is not pretty to watch but it is cathartic. George is the most awkward and hurt part of ourselves. He is our lost innocence.
The film title comes from the Nat King Cole song George plays over and over in his car and one can see how it relates to Simone. Like the Mona Lisa, she doesn't reveal much of what is behind her pretty face.
Mona Lisa is a brutal film because it’s honest. There is no Hollywood gloss and no fairy tale endings. This film can be thought of as the ugly predecessor to Pretty Woman. Hoskins and Tyson both won awards for their roles. The story here is agonizing and the acting is superb. I am forever haunted by an exchange between George and Simone near the end of the film. Simone asks George, “Don’t you ever need someone?” A tearful George replies, “All the time.”