Neil Jordan is perhaps best known for his 1992 film The Crying Game, a moody and controversial film that cemented his reputation as a major force in Hollywood. Jordan is a writer, a poet and a director of great skill whose credits also include Interview with the Vampire and In Dreams. This month Criterion released one of Jordan's best films Mona Lisa.
Released in 1986, Mona Lisa is a deeply layered and rewarding film that feels like a throwback to the great anti-hero films of the 1970s including Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The story revolves around a slightly thick ex con named George (Bob Hoskins) and a high-class hooker called Simone (Cathy Tyson). As the film opens George has just been released from prison. He journeys home to London where he finds his wife and daughter less than pleased to see him. Since his traditional family isn't exactly accommodating he turns for support to his mob family and is given a job as a driver for Simone. As George drives Simone around the city from job to job he becomes curious about her lifestyle and the strange world of the London sex industry.
George's curiosity leads him to discover that Simone is searching for a fellow streetwalker with whom she's lost contact over the years. She begs George to help her find the girl and after a little convincing he agrees. What follows is a brilliantly realized descent into hell where George is confronted by all manner of demons and devils. Along the way he inadvertently crosses both his mob friends and Simone's former pimp, a situation that places him in great danger and provides the plot thrust for the second half of the film. Mona Lisa seems on the surface to be a typical 'hooker with a heart of gold' story but by the time the film is over you realize that Jordan has deconstructed that basic plot and produced a masterful think piece with many levels of meaning.
Mona Lisa is considered in many circles to be a modern classic. It's a gritty reality piece that features fully rendered characters and a plot that can be enjoyed over and over again with satisfying results. The high point of the film is Bob Hoskins' amazingly subtle performance. Hoskins is at the top of his form in this film and he delivers a characterization that borders on genius. He's surrounded by a supporting cast of equal prowess and the whole thing is wrapped in beautiful cinematography topped with excellent editing and a first class score.
Unfortunately this is one of Criterion's non-anamorphic releases which is a real shame. The picture is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.77:1 derived from the original negative. Mona Lisa is a very monochromatic film with an almost black and white feel (harking back in many ways to classic Film Noir) so contrast and color balance are critical. This transfer is a little bright at times leading to washed out highlights but the black levels are dead on and the colors are very accurate. I wasn't able to detect any major digital artifacts but there was a little shimmer from time to time as a result of over sharpening. All in all this is a great transfer even in light of the lack of anamorphic enhancement.
Mona Lisa's original monaural soundtrack is in excellent shape. There's no hiss, no pops and the mix is presented at a consistent level throughout. Mona Lisa is a dialogue driven film and I'm pleased to report that the voices are crisp and clear throughout. That's a boon for us Americans who may have trouble cutting through the thick Cockney accents from time to time.
There are only two extras on Mona Lisa but one of them makes the disc worth owning all on its own. That extra is a superb audio commentary with Jordan and Hoskins. Unlike the average commentary where the director prattles on about how much he loves a particular scene, Jordan and Hoskins speak lucidly about the filmmaking process, the art of writing and the tricks and turns of editing a film. The commentary is chock full of interesting items and there's hardly a quiet moment to be heard. Both of these men reveal themselves as deep thinkers and the information they provide on this track is simply invaluable to any film fan. This is one of the best audio commentaries I've heard in some time. The other extra is a rather battered version of the original theatrical trailer.
Mona Lisa is a masterpiece that may have been overlooked by many film buffs. If you like modern noir and or the films of Martin Scorsese you'll get a lot out of Mona Lisa. The only thing keeping me from making this disc part of the DVD Talk Collectors Series is the lack of an anamorphic transfer. My rating: Highly Recommended.