Mona Lisa isn't a film that leaves you breathless at its conclusion – if anything, Neil Jordan's superb slow-burn won't sock you in the gut until days later, sneaking up on you in ways you don't see coming. Quite rightly, in the anonymous essay accompanying this latest DVD release, the author draws parallels between Bob Hoskins' brilliant portrayal of the well-meaning George here and his incendiary work as Harold Shand in the equally classic The Long Good Friday – for as much as Shand is a tightly wound, violently obsessed hood whose world is bound up in London's future, George is fresh out of prison after seven years, faced with a changed world he doesn't understand and one that threatens to chew him up and spit him out. When considering both films in context of one another, Mona Lisa becomes that much more devastating – it's a pair of sterling performances that show both sides of (roughly) the same man.
Charged with acting as chauffeur for iron-willed lady of the night Simone (Cathy Tyson, in a stunning film debut), George spends his days shepherding the call girl from appointment to appointment, crashing with his friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane). Between vying for an audience with boss Mortwell (Michael Caine) and attempting reconciliation with his estranged wife (Pauline Melville) and daughter, George works to understand the world that changed so dramatically during his incarceration – he soon finds himself enamored of Simone to a dangerous degree, charged with finding a close friend of Simone's, Cathy (Kate Hardie) and ensnaring himself in a web of deceit and violence that builds to a shattering climax.
With the classic Genesis track "In Too Deep" serving as the emotional midway point of the film, Mona Lisa (co-written by Jordan with David Leland) elevates itself into something more than an exploration of London's seamy underworld, with naive girls offering up their bodies in exchange for drugs and slimy vice lords trafficking in human emotions to turn a profit – fusing film noir, romantic thriller and gritty crime drama into a satisfying whole, Jordan explores both his characters as well as the world they inhabit, turning expectations on their head and delivering a surprisingly poignant denouement that lingers long after it fades.
This is the second incarnation of Mona Lisa on DVD, after Criterion's non-anamorphic release, which features two things lamentably missing here: a Neil Jordan and Bob Hoskins commentary track, as well as English subtitles. The Criterion edition is still in print and can be easily tracked down, but for those with anamorphic displays, you'll be left wishing Anchor Bay could've just sprung for those two elements, making this a definitive edition.
Mona Lisa is offered up with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that unfortunately suffers from flicker throughout – it's disappointing since the image is otherwise excellent, with deep blacks, fairly little grain and a sharpness that belies its age.
Presented with a clean, clear Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack, Mona Lisa sounds solid – although the lack of English subtitles is regrettable, as some viewers may not be able to always decipher the occasionally thick accents – otherwise, this is a strong mix that doesn't suffer from distortion or drop-out.
Given the inclusion of a Jordan/Hoskins commentary track on Criterion's version, the surprising lack of anything beyond what's included is unfortunate as the supplemental material here leaves a lot to be desired: an eight-page booklet with an anonymous essay and on the disc itself, only the film's theatrical trailer (whose iffy visuals show how much Mona Lisa has been cleaned up).
Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa reveals its pleasures slowly – subtly shifting from film noir to character study to romantic thriller, it's a film that hasn't aged a day since its release 20 years ago. While Anchor Bay's disc is missing the commentary and English subtitles, the film is offered in anamorphic widescreen, making the disc recommended but far from the definitive edition it should've been.