Review of Mona Lisa Smile

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A free-thinking art professor teaches conservative 50's Wellesley girls to question their traditional societal roles. Starring Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin and Marcia Gay Harden.
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Movie Review: "Mona Lisa Smile"

-- Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, thematic issues)
Length: 117 minutes
Release Date: December 19, 2003
Directed by: Mike Newell
Genre: Drama

In the modern age, women are told to go to college so that they can pursue the career of their dreams. Back in 1953, the year that "Mona Lisa Smile" begins, women in college were told that education was necessary in order to be a good wife to their future husbands. The struggle to change what education means for women is at the heart of the film.

The setting is Wellesley College, an all-girls school where courses in table setting and grooming are still a part of the curriculum. Even as the women enrolled there are getting an elite education, it is hinted that this is nothing but a way station before marriage and motherhood. Enter a new art professor, Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts), a free spirit who previously worked at the liberal bastion of Berkeley. Rumor has it that she transferred to the east coast school because she had a scandalous affair with a famous author. In actuality, Katherine has a steady boyfriend, Paul (John Slattery), though fellow professor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West) makes a play for her affections.

In her initial classes, Katherine shows some of the more famous works of art from history, encouraging her students to give a critique. Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) is particularly vocal in her praise of the art and is quite proud of her knowledge of each piece. Then, Katherine throws the class a curveball and shows some contemporary art that is nothing like Michelangelo or any of the other artists who had previously been critiqued.

While Betty is livid that Katherine is forcing her to learn about what she considers to be bad art, others are not quite as annoyed. Her friend Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) seems to like the new focus of the art class and sees Katherine as something of a kindred spirit. She longs to be free of the gender chains that bind her and will go to some rather extreme lengths to do so, including trying to seduce Professor Dunbar. Meanwhile, Joan (Julia Stiles) is hopelessly stuck somewhere between the two extremes of Betty and Giselle. Poor, clueless Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) is so focused on her frumpy appearance that she doesn't know where she belongs on the spectrum. While others are focused on marrying an upwardly mobile man, she would be happy just to get a date.

Katherine is dismayed that most of these women will not use their degrees in the workplace, opting instead to pursue lives as highly-educated housewives. She sees this as detrimental to her gender and begins to try and impart her point of view to her students. While Giselle and some others are very receptive, Betty and her more conservative counterparts are outraged. It turns out that Betty has a fairly poisonous pen and works at the school newspaper, where she begins whipping out strongly-worded editorials about Katherine and women's liberation. Needless to say, she is not a fan of either, and creates a stir across the campus that leads to plenty of trouble for Katherine.

Dunst turns in a solid performance as Betty, a traditional woman who is completely unapologetic about her conservative views. Though Betty is clearly the adversary of the protagonist Katherine, Dunst's performance manages to make her sympathetic.

Roberts is great no matter what part she plays, but she really sinks her teeth into the role of Katherine. For years, Roberts was associated almost solely with her role in "Pretty Woman" and other romantic comedies. She has slowly changed that with top-notch performances in dramatic films. "Mona Lisa Smile" allows her to continue the transition to a more serious, dramatic actress who can still carry a film with her charm. Her Katherine is confident and insecure, liberated but still shackled in many ways. In other words, she is human, even as some of her more adoring students look up to her as something more.

Dunst, Gyllenhaal, Stiles, and Goodwin were still somewhat unknown at the time the film was released, making their characters' journeys seem all the more real. Director Mike Newell was careful to avoid clichés and stock characters in favor of more richly-drawn women who are relatable, even though the film was set in an era before many viewers were even born. "Mona Lisa Smile" is just a snapshot in time, but it is a poignant one that will resonate with many.

Rating: 4 out of 5