Mona Lisa (1986)
★★ / ★★★★
Fresh out of prison, George (Bob Hoskins), with a white rabbit in his arms, goes to see his boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine), with the hopes of continuing to work for him. Though Mortwell is not there to welcome him, the ex-convict is assigned a job as a driver for a call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson) who visits rich clients all over the city. Soon, George finds himself falling for Simone because he feels that she considers him as more than a doormat, more than somebody who served seven years in jail.
“Mona Lisa,” based on the screenplay by Neil Jordan and David Leland, is not a successful fusion of the drama and crime genres. The approach is to welcome us into George and Simone’s disreputable worlds through their personal interactions, but it sacrifices the complexity of their relationships. As a result, the big picture is a blur for the most part. This is problematic because the third act, including the climax, involves life or death situations. I found myself indifferent toward who lives or dies.
The picture excels in dialogue and acting. Exchanges between the ex-con and the prostitute are never boring because they can be amusing, spicy, tender, and romantic. There is contrast not only in terms of the physicality of the characters but also in the way they come off to one another. George says what he means and means what he says while Simone is immersed in mystery. It makes sense that the two characters are the way they are because of what they have gone through or are continuing to go through. Their occupations might be very different on the surface but they relate to each other eventually because of the front that must be upheld in order to perform the job.
Hoskins and Tyson share wonderful chemistry not necessarily in terms of sexual tension but through George and Simone’s tenuous alliance—a sort of friendship. Hoskins is able to straddle the line between someone who can seriously incapacitate with his fists and rage while attempting to hide a delicate core. On the other hand, Tyson plays Simone with elegance and tenderness. Still, we suspect she knows a thing or two about manipulation though it is not often clear how she is playing the game exactly. She has to be smart and careful to reveal just enough.
An undercooked subplot involves George’s relationship with his daughter. The two share a few secret meetings—since George and his ex-wife do not get along—but there is nothing more to their newly ignited connection other than the fact that George feels uneasy when he sees young prostitutes, some as young as fifteen years old, trying to snag clients in King’s Cross. There is no freshness in the words and sentiments they share.
Perhaps most problematic is our lack of understanding of Mortwell. I suppose we are supposed to assume that he is an influential man, given his position, but the screenplay does not explore him enough. Even though Caine is very good, especially during the first scene we see him—acting with his eyes closed but still delivering the requisite intensity, the majority of the character’s menace fails to translate in later scenes. Mortwell ought to have been equally complex.
Directed by Neil Jordan, “Mona Lisa” gets away with some logic being thrown out the window but rarely does a film, especially when it is a character-driven piece, gets away unscathed without underscoring necessary foils and subplots which make the protagonists’ world go ‘round. Also, since the picture is also part-mystery, discerning eyes cannot help but notice the missing jigsaw puzzles from a distance.