Saturday 11 May 2019

Movie Review: Mona Lisa (1986)

A crime drama and romance, Mona Lisa offers a gritty London milieu, but the story of an unlikely business and personal relationship lacks some texture.

In London, low-level hoodlum George (Bob Hoskins) is released from prison after serving seven years. His former associates under the leadership of sex club owner and mobster boss Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine) give him a job as the chauffeur for expensive call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson). Initially the sophisticated Simone and the excitable George clash over everything, but gradually a friendship evolves.

She confides in him about her past as a street prostitute regularly abused by her pimp Anderson (Clarke Peters), and requests George's help in finding her close friend Cathy, a young prostitute also suffering Anderson's mistreatment. George tries to mend his relationship with his daughter Jeannie (Zoƫ Nathenson), but is drawn into a heap of trouble and violence as he wades deeper into Simone's world.

A grim descent into London's slimy underbelly, Mona Lisa is a rough English equivalent of Taxi Driver, at least in spirit and intent if not overall quality. The story of an irrelevant and coarse man enchanted by an unattainable woman carries possibilities, and director Neil Jordan (who also co-wrote the script) teases an evocative performance out of Bob Hoskins in the lead role.

But once George falls under Simone's spell and embarks on a quest to find her friend Cathy, the film stagnates. The antagonists of this world, as defined by Mortwell and Anderson, are exceptionally poorly defined. Michael Caine sleepwalks through his few scenes, while the supposedly menacing Anderson is reduced to a generic jack-in-the-box presence, popping up to randomly chase and threaten people at designated intervals.

Much better is the core bond between scrappy driver and sophisticated call girl, and Mona Lisa draws its warmth from the emerging dynamic between them. They navigate past the hostile stage and allow an asymmetrical friendship to develop as George starts to fall hard for Simone and extrapolates potential beyond reality. Again Jordan stumbles over the final few hurdles, and once George understands his emotional misplacement Mona Lisa limps over the finish line in more common thriller land.

Newcomer Cathy Tyson has an enigmatic screen presence and adds a layer of allure to Simone's secrets, metaphorically representing the mysterious smile of the title painting.

Stylish and carrying a strong sense of place, Mona Lisa ventures through a sordid version of London and finds a mix of organic and generic.

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