Blu-ray Review: Mona Lisa

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Neil Jordan | CAST: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie, Zoë Nathenson, Sammi Davis
RELEASE DATE: 9/14/21 | PRICE: Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: Audio commentary from 1997 featuring Jordan and actor Bob Hoskins, new conversation with Jordan and actor Cathy Tyson, interviews from 2015 with screenwriter David Leland and producer Stephen Woolley, interview with Jordan and Hoskins from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival
SPECS: NR | 104 min. | Drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | monaural |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie   | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

The perfect vehicle for the late, much missed Bob Hoskins, Mona Lisa is one of those films that moves effortlessly from genre to genre. It begins as a comic crime film, makes moves toward  becoming a modern reworking of a classic romance, and then ends in superb film noir style, with the main character having learned a lot about life, and a few of the leads having taken a bullet in the process.

Director-coscripter Neil Jordan fashioned the 1986 film around Hoskins, and it is one of his great triumphs as an actor. Thanks to his ability to play both light comedy and dark drama, he is superb as George, an ex-con who is assigned to drive around a high-class prostitute, Simone (Cathy Tyson), for his friendly but very lethal boss (Michael Caine). It is evident that George is falling in love with Simone, but she has a “mission” for him: find her lost friend, who is working somewhere in London as an underage hooker.

The changes in tone of the material are reflected by George’s odyssey through London. As he exits prison at the beginning of the film, it is dawn. As he takes on the role of a streetwise chauffeur, he circulates in the early evening through the posh hotels of the West End. And as he searches for Simone’s friend, the film’s “neorealist” side kicks in, and we see the seamy peep show, porn theaters and strip joints of mid-Eighties London.

The third plot element, which actually takes up the second half of the film, is the only derivative aspect of Mona Lisa, as it becomes apparent that George is a Cockney gangster on a Travis Bickle trajectory – ready to eliminate pimps and corrupt businessmen to find the teen hooker. Jordan pulls us out of the Taxi Driver mood (which includes images of rear-view mirrors floating over nighttime streets) by setting the final section in Brighton, among the amusements on the pier.

Through it all, though, Hoskins hits the right notes — from the earlier scenes where he banters with his Scottish, mystery-novel-addicted friend (Robbie Coltrane) to the tragic conclusion, he incarnates George as a creature of the past (the 1950s and ’60s, when gangsters did rule London’s seamiest neighborhoods) who is an ill-attired knight-errant trying to earn Simone’s love in the present.

Jordan’s modern fable is acted out beautifully by the cast. In her first screen role, Tyson is sublime as Simone, an elegant spirit in the middle of an ugly environment. Having Caine playing the main instigator was a masterstroke, as he is only onscreen for a small amount of time but still packs a wallop — first playing a kind of older brother figure for George (whose prison sentence involved taking the fall for Caine’s character), then later spitefully turning on him.

Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa (1986).

Hoskins is present in two vintage supplements in this package. The first is an edit of interviews both he and Jordan did at the same 1986 Cannes Film Festival. The film hadn’t been seen yet, so Jordan provides a summary of the plot, while both gentlemen discuss the character of George in the film. Hoskins notes that he “is desperate to love someone” and thus has blinkers on in his dealings with Simone; Jordan calls the character “a man who will never understand women.”

Hoskins and Jordan are also present in an audio commentary recorded in 1997 for a preceding Criterion release of the film. Jordan discloses that his initial choice for George was Sean Connery, but Connery was busy; when he met Hoskins, he revamped the part entirely to fit him. For his part, Hoskins notes that he did improvisational sessions with Tyson in-character as George and Simone before they shot certain scenes; with the seasoned comedic vet Robbie Coltrane, Hoskins says he ad-libbed lines from the start (as he and Robbie were “a pair of old vaudevillian queens”).

Jordan discusses the participation of the film’s producers at Handmade Films. George Harrison okayed the project with one proviso: he didn’t “want to see any naked dicks in the movie.” Producer Denis O’Brien requested that Jordan remove a very well-worked out montage of George searching through various sex emporiums to find Simone’s friend. When Jordan refused to remove it, O’Brien demanded that the scene be scored to a pop tune — thus the odd “music video” quality of the scene (which is set to the Genesis song “In Too Deep,” written especially for the film).

Hoskins singles out the role of George as one that was very special to him (“I’ve never played a man this raw before, this open to the elements of corruption.”) He also notes that Jordan asked he and Tyson to shoot a sex scene, which all involved knew was most likely not going to make the final cut. Hoskins notes, “It just wasn’t necessary — it didn’t fit.”

In an interview shot for the 2015 UK Arrow Video release of the film, the film’s original scripter David Leland notes that Michael Caine was also considered for the role of George, and that he continued to participate in an advisory capacity as Jordan did rewrites on the scripts.

Speaking in another Arrow interview, producer Stephen Woolley discusses in depth the memorably noir scenes shot in King’s Cross where hookers stand around waiting for customers (based on an actual area of King’s Cross that existed for a short time in the early Eighties). Woolley provides background on the plot, noting that it was inspired by a newspaper article about a Maltese man on trial in England who was thought to be a pimp, but the prostitutes involved in the case swore that he was actually protecting them from criminal figures. He also pinpoints the real-life individual who was transformed into the character played by Caine as a London strip-show entrepreneur of the time named Paul Raymond.

The new supplement created for this release is a Zoom-esque dual present-day interview of Jordan and Tyson. Jordan praises Tyson’s work in the film and discusses how he cast her based on her performance in a play. He notes that she and the other actresses playing prostitutes ended up interviewing the real sex workers he hired to be in the film in smaller parts.

The sweetest praise of all is left at the feet of the late Hoskins. Tyson says that “he taught her how to act” (on film; she was already a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and that he was always “available” to work with her on the role. Jordan sums his star up as “a gentle man, with a lot of power.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”