Summertime, and the pickings are dreadful. In a season not noted for adult diversions, "Mona Lisa" could hardly be more welcome: a glorious, heart-shaped box of bittersweet chocolates for the grown-ups in the house.
Rueful and funny; brutal, beautiful and lushly romantic, "Mona Lisa" (at the Cineplex Odeon Showplace and Plitt Century Plaza) finds gallantry and real heroism among the most unlikely surroundings: the sex shops and drug traffic of London's seamy underside.
With this role, written expressly for him, Bob Hoskins tied for best actor this year at Cannes as the pugnacious, yearning, oddly innocent ex-con George. It's the richest film role yet for the extraordinary Hoskins, a definition of what chivalry requires of a man in today's world: a boxer's fists, a poet's soul and an outraged, unwavering knowledge of what's right.
Just out of prison and denied much access to his 15-year-old daughter (Zoe Nathenson) by his ex-wife, George goes back to work for his old boss. Mortwell (Michael Caine) is a well-heeled, despicable type who has added a few nasty kinks, pornography and trafficking in young girls, to his business in the seven years that George has been away.
He gives George the job as driver/strong-arm for the elegant Simone (20-year-old Cathy Tyson, in a memorable debut), a tall, scornful black call girl. It is loathing at first sight for this comic pair, the fireplug and the lamppost. But from bewildered truculence, George progresses to full-blown romantic anguish, bowled over as much by his idealized image of her and her role in men's lives as by the formidable, needy Simone herself.
Neil Jordan, the virtuoso director and co-writer (with David Leland) is of Irish stock, a people for whom storytelling is part of the fabric of life and as necessary as bread. It's hardly surprising that George and his deadpan eccentric crony Thomas (Robbie Coltrane) spin stories and argue whether angels are men or women as hotly as other men debate baseball statistics.
From George's own mouth we understand that "Mona Lisa" is a street-wise variation on the frog who became a prince--this time by his own virtues, without much help from this tarnished princess.
Jordan has played with fairy tales before: "The Company of Wolves" was a feverish, sensual reworking of "Little Red Riding Hood." But "Mona Lisa" is something else: Jordan's most controlled flight of lyricism matched by the same lush command of image.
From the scrap of Nicholas Ray's "They Live by Night" on George's television screen, we can suspect that Ray's intense visual style and his humanism were beacons for Jordan. If so, he's done an idol proud.
It is George's fearsome humanism in the face of malevolence that drives "Mona Lisa," too. And this time, Jordan has character and storytelling in perfect balance, wrapping everything 'round with the satiny title song. In Nat King Cole's indispensable voice, the lyrics lift and place "Mona Lisa" as precisely as "Brazil's" soaring tune did its film. Coincidentally, "Brazil's" cinematographer, Roger Pratt, did the lighting camera work.
The actors are formidable. Unsurprisingly, Hoskins dominates the film, fulminating with moral outrage, energy pouring from him as though from a cast-iron stove. At the same time his running exchanges with Robbie Coltrane, the movie's other guardian of the public morals, are nuggets of laconic humor. Cathy Tyson (niece to Cicely) more than holds her own with Hoskins, as the two ally to search out Simone's closest friend, a child hooker who may be alive. This is one of Michael Caine's wicked turns; few actors can sketch authority, loathsomeness and dangerousness in so few strokes.
For all its sad and sordid backgrounds, "Mona Lisa" has a firm, sweet insistence on a moral center to life that glows like a beacon. It would be reassuring to believe, as Jordan does, that optimism this pure is not a fairy tale in today's unraveling world.
'MONA LISA' A Handmade Films Release through Island Pictures of a Palace Production. Producers Stephen Woolley, Patrick Cassavetti. Director Neil Jordan. Executive producers George Harrison, Denis O'Brien. Screenplay, Jordan, David Leland. Camera Roger Pratt. Editor Lesley Walker. Production design Jamie Leonard. Art direction Gemma Jackson. Music score Michael Kamen. Sound David John. With Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie, Sammi Davies, Zoe Nathenson.
MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian) Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.