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Mona Lisa - 1986

Directed by Neil Jordan

Written by Neil Jordan & David Leland

Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Robbie Coltrane & Michael Caine

The Best Actor category during the 1987 Academy Awards ceremony made for an interesting mix of sentiment and ability. William Hurt was nominated for his role in Children of a Lesser God - he'd won his first Oscar the previous year, appearing in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and was going for back-to-back Academy Awards. Dexter Gordon would normally be expected to show in one of the music/song categories, but a rare acting gig saw him an unlikeliest possible 'Best Actor' recipient. James Woods was being nominated for the first time ever, and was a strong contender for his work in Salvador. Bob Hoskins had risen from obscurity, gaining fame via the extraordinary Dennis Potter serial Pennies From Heaven, and showing his undeniable worth in the classic British crime drama The Long Good Friday in 1980. His rise now saw him on acting's biggest stage, and his performance in Mona Lisa would probably be a shoe-in for a first-up win. There was only one problem - the sentimental tug of the long-denied Paul Newman. Paul Newman, never having won, had lost a staggering 7 nominations in a row - so many that he decided to not even show this time. In a more open field however, there was no stopping him. Hoskins would have to make do with a Golden Globe and a BAFTA - usually sure signs an Oscar is coming. He would never end up winning one.

Hoskins is a great actor - I love him, and apparently he was a very likeable fellow. Always kind to fellow actors, especially if they were just starting out. He's remarkable in Mona Lisa, playing a low-level crook (George) working for underworld kingpins, who has to ferry around high-class hooker Simone (Cathy Tyson). As he spends more time with this woman, day after day, their intemperate, argumentative relationship develops into a firm friendship - and George finds himself falling in love with her. In the meantime he learns much more about what it means to be a prostitute in 1980s London, where violent pimps abuse their charges, drug abuse is common, girls disappear and are generally mistreated. Many of them are virtual slaves, and Simone wants George to help her find someone she was once close with - a fellow working girl. In the meantime, George has run ins with the big boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine) and a pimp called Anderson (Clarke Peters). His only outlet is an eccentric mechanic/entrepreneur/author friend of his, Thomas (Robbie Coltrane). I once knew a Scottish lady who went to acting classes with Robbie Coltrane - I always think of her when I see him.

It was interesting listening to Neil Jordan talk about his initial inspiration regarding the making of Mona Lisa - the seedy prostitution side, and the idea that men often don't have a very deep understanding of what a woman is thinking and feeling. Despite there being a strong friendship between George and Simone, there's a fundamental disconnect when it comes to their meeting of minds, and George isn't cognizant of his vibrant and forceful passenger's reasoning before or after they start getting along. He simply falls in love with her - and falls into the kind of belief many men do when they're with call girls. That they're really making them laugh because they're funny, and making them scream because they really are that good in bed. He ignores her anger and frustration with him because at the end of the day she's still there, in his car - and conversation with her is becoming easier and more free. George has come from a seven year stint in prison, and even aside from that has probably never spent as much time with a woman if you disregard his wife - who now hates him and tries to keep his teenage daughter from seeing him. For George love is easy - but for a long-term prostitute love isn't that simple, or easily recognizable to men.

Apparently (and I've heard this about some sections of New York as well) the red light districts we see in London during Mona Lisa have been cleaned up, and now the likes of the UK's offices of Google are more representative of what you'd see there. Some old cinemas that would show old classic and cult films have all been closed down because the rents are now too exorbitant. It's fun to see the real seedy side of society in this film, although that fun is tempered with a feeling of sadness for the girls we see. Jordan apparently hired a whole host of real-life call girls to appear as extras in the film, or to play very small roles. He says with a hint of sadness that most of them were drug addicts, and that really brings home a lot of what we see in the film. There are echoes of Taxi Driver when George tries to help underage hooker May (Sammi Davis), at first mistaking her for the girl Simone charges him with finding, Cathy (Kate Hardie). These parallels also merge with another inspiration for the film - a newspaper article about a man charged with grievous bodily harm who claimed that he was urged to do what he did to protect girls from their violent pimps. It all blends together really well, and like Taxi Driver, Mona Lisa has a certain timeless feel to it. The issues wrapped up here have been with us as long as civilization has.

I really enjoyed watching this film - as I've been waiting to see it for a while, and have been avoiding any spoilers so I can some in nearly blind, I kind of built up an expectation apropos of the very scant information I'd taken in. It was wider in scope than I thought it would be, and I think Michael Caine's presence was really powerful, despite his limited screen time. I completely believe he's a ruthless gangster - this mid-80s period for him was one in which he was probably in his best form as an actor. Cathy Tyson had a brilliant debut - you couldn't ask much more from her (she was only 20-years-old.) Robbie Coltrane doesn't get much to do, but his side-business selling fake plastic imitation food is really interesting in conjunction with this film's themes of things that aren't real going up for sale - and I loved the tacky green statues of the Virgin Mary. One of my brother's girlfriends once had a statue of Jesus that would turn different colours if you warmed him up in the oven - I kid you not. My whole family were so bemused by this, and it's stuck in my memory - but the time period for this would have been the early 80s, so perhaps that was some kind of fad at the time.

Unfortunately I don't jive with Nat 'King' Cole's singing and songs - but I can't hold this against the movie. I just kind of endured it - I was expecting to hear the song 'Mona Lisa', and it always went through my head when I thought of what this film might be like. Sure enough, we hear it over the opening and closing credits, with the tune coming up several times during the film itself - Hoskins even hums it at one stage if I remember correctly. I had no idea whatsoever that Genesis song 'In Too Deep' was written and performed especially for the Mona Lisa soundtrack - my pop culture trivia knowledge just gained another fact to help me during quiz nights and the like there - I'm no Phil Collins fan either, but he kind of reminds me of Bob Hoskins. Despite the music and score not doing much for me, I can't say that it impaired my enjoyment of the film much at all. It still works inasmuch as it gives the whole atmosphere a sad sheen that lingers over proceedings. Those Nat 'King' Cole songs have that edge of melancholy wistfulness about them, so I can't say that they didn't fit. I simply don't really like the song 'Mona Lisa', apart from the lyrics which read like poetry.

So, overall this was a movie that has really deep emotional layers to it, and I thought it was very good. It's one that (by it's contents, style, meaning and such) I would have loved to have asked my brother, David, if he'd seen. He died way back in '95, so it's likely I'll never know. I like seeing characters who are rough, roguish and even criminal if they display so much emotional vulnerability, as George did in this film. It kind of sets up a duality that can be seen as emblematic of all human beings. I also admired a movie that could explore the way so many men don't understand what women are telling them with their emotions, body language and even words - how there's often a disconnect there, with guys only believing what they want to believe. Living in the world of make-believe that makes their use of prostitution all the more acceptable, because "they enjoyed it too". Swirling around all of this are the hidden parts of ourselves, the games we play, the tricks - like magic acts, which is another theme that repeatedly crops up. This was a very intelligent, thoughtful film that didn't have to sacrifice any of it's narrative power to be that way. It satisfies on many levels.