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Mona Lisa (The Criterion Collection)
Neil Jordan's third feature, which followed Angel and the criminally underrated In The Company Of Wolves, was 1986's Mona Lisa, a crime film he co-wrote with David Leland and which starred the always excellent Bob Hoskins in the lead. The film follows a low ranking would be mobster named George (Hoskins) who has finished serving time in the big house and has been released back into the general population after a seven year stint. He doesn't have much to come back to. While he was locked up his wife became his ex-wife and decided, fairly understandably, that he shouldn't have any contact with his daughter what with his criminal affiliations and all. With nothing else to really work for or towards, he decides to revisit his old boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine), despite the fact that he completely ditched him once he got arrested and didn't bother with him while he was in jail. George really only seems to have on friend in this world, and that's a guy named Thomas (Robbie Coltrane), whose got problems of his own.
George winds up at least getting a job, albeit a menial one. He's tasked with playing driver to a high class hooker named Simone (Cathy Tyson at her most infatuating) and to basically driver her around from one rich client to another and wait for her to do her business. His position has one catch though in that he also has to act as her wig. If she feels someone in a place of authority is starting to suspect that she's turning tricks, something which can often lead to jail time, she's to meet up with him under some more innocent situation. Basically, if she gets into trouble, he meets her for a cocktail and covers for her. Simone, however, doesn't seem to care for George much at all, and you can't really blame her. He dresses and acts like he's her pimp and his a puzzlingly large ego at times. George is none too keen on her either, looking down on her for her profession with more than a little bit of disdain. It's ironic then that they develop a mutual attraction for one another, and even more ironic when their trust becomes strong enough that Simone hires him to help her find another prostitute that she used to work with named Cathy (Katie Hardie). She knows that Cathy's in trouble, but not to the extent in which her situation has gotten unbearably bad thanks to her pimp, Anderson (Clarke Peterson). George, however, is keen on taking the case, no matter how sleazy the places he needs to explore in order to crack it.
If Neil Jordan perfected that emotional gut punch of an ending with The Crying Game he got a lot of practice with Mona Lisa, a film named after that fetching smile that the fairer sex can offer up to man and completely captivate him. This film has a lot more going for it than just standard sexual politics and power plays, however, as there's some very real and very legitimate character development going on as the story plays out and holds our attention. Borrowing from similarly themed American films like Taxi Driver and especially Hardcore (in which George C. Scott goes into New York City's underworld of pornography and the sex trade to find his daughter), Jordan's film lets the seedier side of London become a character as much as it is a location in the picture and the movie is all the better for it. Some beautifully skuzzy locations add loads of colorful atmosphere and realistically sleazy characters into the mix and add a layer of earthy realism to the picture that meshes quite nicely with how the film lets us get to know the people that populate its core.
As far as the performances go, there's nothing to complain about here at all. Coltrane makes a great supporting player while the fetching Cathy Tyson is attractive enough and interesting enough that you can absolutely see why George would start to develop feelings for her. Of course, this is basically Hoskins's show, he's rightfully top billed and very definitely the star of the show, delivering a performance that rivals the one he'll go down in the books for, that being The Long Good Friday, and seeing him share the screen with a legitimate legend like Michael Caine is really a treat for anyone who can appreciate seeing two of England's finest strut their stuff. There's a fair bit of violence and a realistic sense of bleakness to the picture that might turn some off but the mystery it unfolds is a compelling one and the film is never short on entertainment value. Jordan's picture is smart enough to let us get to know the character before then setting out to pull the rug out from underneath them, and in turn, us. This, however, is one instance where we enjoy the fall.
The Criterion Collection presents Mona Lisa in an AVC encoded 1080p 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The feature takes up 31.3GBs of space on a 50GB disc and is taken from a new 2K digital restoration that was supervised by both director Neil Jordan and director of photography Roger Pratt and it looks great. The previous Blu-ray release from Image Entertainment looked terrible but all of the issues with that transfer have, thankfully, been rectified here. Colors look great, detail is very strong and there's impressive depth and texture to the image. There aren't any problems with compression, noise reduction or edge enhancement and the image always looks properly filmic. Black levels and skin tones look spot on and it's really tough to find anything to complain about here in terms of the presentation, even if a new 4k remaster might have likely been able to pull even more detail out of the elements used for the transfer.
The only audio option for the feature is a 24-bit LPCM Mono track in English, with optional subtitles provided in English only. Again, no complaints here. The single channel mix is clean, balanced and properly authentic. Dialogue is always easy to understand and follow, the score sounds nice and crisp and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion.
Extras on the disc start off with an archival audio commentary from 1997 featuring Neil Jordan actor Bob Hoskins. Originally recorded for Criterion's Laserdisc release, it proves to be a genuinely interesting talk about the making of the film.
New to this release is a conversation with Jordan and actor Cathy Tyson, moderated by critic Ryan Gilbey, that clocks in at twenty-nine minutes in length. In this piece they discuss where the ideas for the film came from, what it was like working with Bob Hoskins on the picture and what he brought to his role, locations used for the shoot, changes that were made to the original script and more.
Criterion also includes an interviews from 2015 with screenwriter David Leland that runs for nineteen minutes and goes over writing the first draft of his screenplay, how Caine was originally intended to play the part that Hoskins wound up with, changes that Jordan made to Leland's work and his thoughts on the film overall. Producer Stephen Woolley is up next in a fourteen minute interview, also from 2015, that covers growing up in the area of London where the movie takes place, working with Jordan on the picture, the very specific look that the film nails down for its locations and more.
Also included on the disc, and worth checking out, is an eleven minute interview with Jordan and Hoskins from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. They talk about the themes and concepts that the film explores, what went into playing the lead in the picture and what Hoskin's acting style brings to the role and what went into the pre-production process required for the production.
Menus and chapter selection are provided on the disc, which comes packaged with a color insert booklet that contains an essay by on the film written by Ryan Gilbeyn titled Underground Errand as well as credits for the feature and the disc and some technical notes on the presentation.
Mona Lisa is a deliciously gritty and surprisingly involving thriller that hits that appreciable mix of tension and emotional impact really effectively. The fact that the cast is as good as they obviously helps but Jordan's picture really focuses in quite tightly on storytelling and technique and the results are very impressive. The Criterion Collection has done an excellent job bringing this film out on a proper special edition Blu-ray release with a great presentation and a very strong selection of extra features. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.