Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Mona Lisa: Criterion Collection (1986)
Studio Line: Criterion/Home Vision

Writer-director Neil Jordan's breakthrough film is a brilliant, noir-infused love story. Bob Hoskins (who snagged an Oscar nomination for his performance) plays George, a small-time loser employed as a chauffeur to an enigmatic, high-class call girl. His fascination with her leads him on a dangerous quest through the sordid underbelly of London, where love is a weakness to be exploited and betrayed. Criterion is proud to present Mona Lisa in a Director Approved special edition.

Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Actor-Bob Hoskins. 1987.
DVD: Widescreen 1.77:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 25 chapters; Not Rated; 104 min.; $39.95; street date 3/13/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Director Neil Jordan And Actor Bob Hoskins; Original Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C-/C+

When I visited England in December 1999, I cut across an area of London on my way to Piccadilly Circus. Unwittingly (really!) I stumbled upon a district near that tourist trap in which most of the stores favored pornographic material. It was here that for the first and only times in my life I was approached by prostitutes. One seemed stoned and out of it, but the other was quite chipper; she appeared polite and wished me a good day when I declined her invitation.

Despite the pleasant demeanor of this pro, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth, mainly due to that less-genial compatriot of hers. However, based on a viewing of 1986ís Mona Lisa, I may have gotten off easy. Although the situation seemed seedy and depressing, it was nothing compared to the sad lifestyles depicted in this film.

Mona Lisa focuses on the story of George (Bob Hoskins), a recently-released ex-con. George apparently went to jail due to general hood-related activities, and he seems eager to pick up where he left off in earlier years; as the movie starts, he tries to regain employment with his old boss Mortwell (Michael Caine). Unfortunately, he canít meet up with the big man; instead, heís given a task to be the driver for a prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson).

Initially, crass George and more sophisticated Simone - who he describes as a ďtall black tartĒ - get along poorly, but they gradually develop stronger feelings for each other. Actually, George seems to fall for Simone, and he becomes ensnared in a variety of nasty situations out of his affection for her. Inevitably, he sets himself up for a fall, and the film explores the nature of his emotions.

Mona Lisa doesnít operate from much of a plot base, but it does very well for itself nonetheless. It functions largely as a character drama, and the focus stayed strongly on George. As such, it helps that Hoskins offers a thoroughly terrific performance as our protagonist. He makes George seem appropriately rough and thick, but he also imbues the role with sublime humanity and realism. George could have been little more than a dim-witted hood, but Hoskins creates a full-blooded and involving character.

The remainder of the cast also seemed solid. Tyson was quite believable as Simone; she offers just enough charm and vivacity to make her endearing to George - and us - but she keeps away from the usual ďhooker with the heart of goldĒ stereotypes. Mona Lisa isnít the kind of film that presents pat, easily-categorized characters, and the depth Tyson and the others brought to the roles made the film quite engaging.

Really, this kind of movie lives or dies based on the performances, so there may have been little that director Neil Jordan could have done to damage the film in that regard. Iím not a big fan of Jordanís work, but he does a capable job with Mona Lisa. The movie becomes a bit muddled at times, but as a whole it progressed at an appropriate rate, and the story felt largely coherent. Itís not a fantastically deep work, but Jordan executes the tale with appropriate skill.

Nonetheless, itís the fine acting of Mona Lisa that makes it a treat to watch. Bob Hoskins received the filmís only Academy Award nomination, though he eventually lost the prize to Paul Newmanís performance in The Color Of Money. I liked Newman in that role, but he couldnít compare to the simple yet effective work of Hoskins. As film, Mona Lisa isnít a classic, but the excellent performances it contains puts it on a high level.

The DVD:

Mona Lisa appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.77:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I found that last fact to be a surprise, since Criterion have routinely offered anamorphic enhancement for quite some time now, and Mona Lisaís aspect ratio perfectly matches the 16X9 dimensions. Nonetheless, the film definitely showed no enhancement, and as a whole, it offered a bland but watchable image.

Sharpness usually seemed adequate, with much of the movie appearing fairly crisp and detailed. However, the lack of anamorphic enhancement hurt the picture, as the lower resolution resulted in some vague fuzziness at times. The non-anamorphic qualities also meant that I saw more jagged edges and moirť effects than usual. While those concerns werenít heavy, they seemed occasionally problematic.

Print flaws appeared modest for the most part. The picture showed some grain during much of its running time, and I also saw periodic examples of grit, speckles, blotches and streaks. However, I thought these stayed acceptably minor for most of the movie. They could become annoying but they didnít seem excessive.

Colors looked generally accurate but they appeared largely bland and blah. Granted, ML isnít a Technicolor extravaganza, but I still thought the hues were more lifeless and vague than they should have been. The many seedy interiors came across worst, as those scenes showed fairly fuzzy colors. Black levels were similarly drab but decent, and shadow detail usually appeared acceptably heavy but not excessively thick. A few darker scenes looked a bit too dim, but the movie generally provided adequate definition. Really, ďadequateĒ is about the most I can say for this watchable but unexceptional transfer of Mona Lisa.

Although I think some of the problems I saw with the picture may have been eliminated via a 16X9 enhanced image, the movieís monaural soundtrack would seem below average no matter what. Thatís largely because mono mixes were behind the times even in 1986, and this one showed relatively weak quality as well. Dialogue seemed somewhat thin and bland, but speech was clearly reproduced without problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Actually, I did have some trouble understanding a few lines, but those concerns occurred due to thick accents, not poor audio. Effects and music seemed similarly thin but acceptably clean and clear, though those elements showed no dynamic range. Ultimately, I found Mona Lisa to provide a pretty lackluster listening experience.

The Criterion DVD of Mona Lisa includes a few supplements, the most significant of which is an audio commentary from director Neil Jordan and actor Bob Hoskins. Recorded for a 1996 laserdisc, this piece follows the typical Criterion tradition in that both men were recorded separately and the results were edited together for this single coherent track.

As usual, this results in a solid audio commentary. Not surprisingly, Jordan dominates the track, and he provides a good wealth of information about the filmís genesis, its production, and what he wanted to do with it. Hoskins contributes some nice reflections on his goals as an actor and his experiences during the making of the movie. Itís a compelling and informative program that added to my appreciation of the film.

In addition, Mona Lisa tosses in the movieís theatrical trailer plus a brief essay in the DVDís booklet. Written by Jordan, the latter quickly touches on the genesis of the project and a few other thoughts, but itís not terribly informative. Criterion usually offer some excellent essays in their booklet, so this short one seemed disappointing.

As a whole, the same sentiment applies to this DVD release of Mona Lisa. The movie itself is an unspectacular tale, but itís buoyed by some excellent performances. Primary among those was the stellar work of Bob Hoskins; he makes the movie work almost single-handedly. The DVD, however, is pretty lackluster. The non-anamorphic transfer seemed watchable but drab, and the monaural sound was thin and lifeless. The disc includes a good audio commentary but fails to contribute any other substantial extras. Ultimately, Mona Lisa merits a rental.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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