Retro Review: ‘Mona Lisa’
When a man a gruff, working class, low-level member of the underworld is forced to work with a beautiful, cultured high-priced call girl, you have two people who have nothing in common forced in close proximity. But for George and Simone it is the start of a tumultuous but beautiful relationship that will leave them changed forever. Fresh off the success of his film The Company of Wolves, writer/director Neil Jordan was carving out a career in British cinema. His follow-up film in 1986 was this powerful neo-noir starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Robbie Coltrane, and Michael Caine, Mona Lisa.
After a stint in prison, low-level gangster George is in need of work and London’s crime boss, Denny Mortwell, tosses him a bone. That bone is to be the driver and bodyguard for the call girl Simone as she conducts business with her high-level clients. These two are worlds apart and naturally start their working relationship off on an argumentative foot. Over time, George reluctantly develops feelings for this woman and even agrees to help her search for a friend who has disappeared in the abyss of London’s human trafficking industry. As things unfold, George finds himself increasingly pulled in multiple directions, as Denny wants him to use his position to gain blackmail material on Simone’s elite clients, Simone needs him in London’s seediest places to find her friend, and his estranged teenage daughter is trying to reconnect with him.
I have heard Mona Lisa best described as a noir-inspired love story, which naturally means do not expect the happiest of endings. That being said by the time the credits roll the viewer will feel completely satisfied with how everything turned out even if it was not the way they expected. The entire film the audience has been exposed to all the gritty unsettling darkness the London underworld can throw at them. The grounded nature of Mona Lisa is what really drives things the power of the film to the point that is impossible to forget. In this world George is clearly a man in over his head and he knows it, and the only thing he can rely on is his guts and toughness. Sitting at the top of this kingdom of vice is Denny Mortwell played to smarmy perfection by Sir Michael Caine. Founder of the Film Noir Foundation, Eddie Muller, said it best, pointing out that Caine was now playing the very character he would have blown away in his previous crime film classic Get Carter. He is such a detestable character that his final fate feels completely justified.
To put it simply, this could very well be the greatest performance of Bob Hoskin’s storied career. He is at once a gruff, tenacious scrapper but also a vulnerable man with a soft side that he is trying to keep hidden. A pitbull with a heart of gold if you will. There is one scene in particular where Hoskin’s range is on full display in a pivotal scene when he slaps Simone in a fit of rage. This triggers her memories of being abused by past clients and she hits hits him back with a flurry of blows. Realizing the depth of how much he has screwed up, George takes it and we watch his fury melt away to heartbreak. This is a powerful and emotionally charged scene where we see his tough exterior broken. It should come as no surprise that Bob Hoskins took home both a BAFTA and Golden Globe for this performance. The actor’s chemistry with then newcomer Cathy Tyson is off the charts in Mona Lisa. As mentioned previously, they portrayed two characters who were nothing alike as a classy call girl and a gruff thug, but the chemistry between these two is perfect where you can see they genuinely care deeply for one another but there is enough tension to keep things interesting.
Easily one of the best crime films of the 1980’s Mona Lisa is a powerful picture that takes audiences from crime filled back alleys to the penthouses of those who profit off this crime. It is in this dangerous world that two souls who are worlds apart find each other. Their relationship is the anchor of what unfolds as one of the best British films of the 1980’s.