The Sunday Cult Film Corner: Mona Lisa (1986)

11 May


Been a while since we’ve done these. But as I have some free time on my hands, perhaps it’s best to get my hands dirty again with some hot stinky film action.

You may have heard recently the sad news from a few weeks ago that top British film actor Bob Hoskins died aged 72. He was definitely one of the more charismatic and dynamic of film actors to come out of Britain in the ’70s and ’80s and he will always be remembered for a brace of film roles that included the likes of The Long Good Friday (Which we featured on this blog a while back), Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Last Orders. Even though he certainly didn’t look like a film star, he brought a real sense of brooding masculinity that encased a nuanced, almost sensitive actor.

So for this weeks Sunday cult film corner, we thought it would be best to honour the guy by casting a light on one of his best known films that shows the depth of his acting talent in full flow. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you MONA LISA.

MONA LISA was directed in 1986 by Neil Jordan (who is also known on this blog for his film The Crying Game). MONA LISA was made in the middle of what was an extraordinary run of films written and directed by Jordan, from his debut Angel in 1982 to the Butcher Boy in 1997 that included a swathes of genres and styles whether it was likes of Adult themed fantasy horror such as The Company of Wolves, and Interview With A Vampire, comedies such as High spirits and We’re No Angels, and biopics such as Michael Collins. But it was MONA LISA that i feel to be his most complete, best made film.

MONA LISA stars Hoskins as George a low-level criminal who has come out of a stretch in prison for taking the fall for his former boss, crime lord Denny Mortwell (played by Mchael Caine). Mortwell is now one of the major vice kings in London and as a thank you to George, he give him a job as a chauffeur to a high-class call girl named Simone (Played by Cathy Tyson). After initially showing an intense dislike to each other, George and Simone glow close as friends. Simone asks George if he can help her find Cathy, an old friend and prostitute, who has gone missing, Meanwhile Mortwell put pressure on George to find out about the clients that Simone is servicing. As George tries to find Cathy, he wades deep into the murky and seedy world of prostitution, vice and porn that puts both his and Simone’s life in danger.

MONA LISA is a slick, brilliantly shot neo-noir film that displays a brilliant use of London in all its grim Gritty glory as a backdrop to an unusual blossoming romance. It’s a city where high-class world of politicians and diplomats rub up close with urban squalor. With high-class businessmen at the Ritz sitting next door to the grime of ’80s Soho, where you can almost smell the piss and other body fluid on display. Then there’s the scene set at foreboding place of Kings Cross at night, the main drag for the areas prostitutes (keep an eye out for the night scene in King’s Cross that contains a lovely cameo role from Eastender’s Billy Mitchell aka actor Perry Fenwick).

But despite the realism and grit, MONA LISA has a soft sheen and a pacing that is languid, almost glacial, with Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” and other songs of his ringing throughout the film. Jordan’s direction and cinematography has a slightly detached camera work and washed out colour palette that is especially noticeable in the the final scenes of the film, which are set in the faded run down grandeur Brighton, a town that bestows the film a melancholic almost dreamlike nature. But despite the dark nature of the film and subject matter, there is no voyeuristic or use of flesh in an exploitative manner that you would almost expect in many other films of this type. There is the odd flourish of violence and flash of nipple, but the real horrors are only inferred, happening behind closed doors away from our eyes. Our imaginations are there to fill in the blanks.

As a vehicle for his talents, MONA LISA  has Hoskins in one his best performances on film, as he makes what is essentially a violent thug for hire the hero of the movie. As a man who went into prison in the ’70s, he comes out to a world that has changed heavily, from minorities living in his neighbourhood to new technology such as pagers and videos. From his early scenes with Tyson we see him as a man who struggles to come to terms with a new London of new finance, smart styles and high-powered business interests, a far cry from the gutter where he comes from. And from the opening scene we see him revert to the snarling hoodlum type that made him famous in the Long Good Friday with him kicking off in the street. , with minorities living in the same street as his daughter  But we soon quickly see that while he he’s a bit tasty and can handle himself, George is no thug. His friendships with Simone and Thomas (played by Robbie Coltrane) show him as a man who may be a thug in the gutter, but who is also with feelings and heart as he is used and abused by those higher up in the food chain to him.

The real villain of the piece is of course Michael Caine as crime lord Mortwell. By the mid-80s, Caine had gone slightly off in the public eye, with him living the louche life in LA and playing forgettable roles in films such as Water, Blame It On Rio, and The Island. Indeed it seemed that he was settling into a star persona of slightly lazy, phoned in roles and growing irrelevance. But with MONA LISA, we got to see Caine in a role that reminded us why he is considered one of the greats. Caine plays Mortwell with relish as a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Compared to old-timer George, he has embraced the cold, ruthless, capitalist ethic and worldview that embodied Britain in the ’80s under Thatcher. But despite his rarefied environment he is all sleazy smiles and lizard charm until the moment when we see him turn that even makes George flinch nervously.

Alongside these two established actors, there’s Cathy Tyson in what was her debut role as Simone. Tyson gives a fearless performance as a woman who is tough, aloof, steely, like a trapped animal trying to work out all the angles to escape. underneath her calculating exterior is a damaged person and we don’t know how far she will go  in order for her to get what she most desires. She does show her vulnerability with George, but like all the other characters in the film, she also keeps her true feelings and intentions close to her chest.

MONA LISA, yeah it´s definitely one of the top UK films of the ’80s. A film about the nature of a friendship between two people who are cogs in a brutal, callous world, who seek solace with each other, but ultimately with different priorities that threaten to cause serious harm.

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Film


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