Coming off of Red Riding Hood pastiche The Company of Wolves, writer-director Neil Jordan was probably still thinking a bit in terms of a fairy tale or fable when he agreed to helm the London crime picture Mona Lisa. The dark urban fairy tale side of Mona Lisa comes from the essentially optimistic perspective of Bob Hoskins' small-time crook George, an allusion to The Frog Prince, and the throwback lyricism lent by the classic title tune, sung by Nat King Cole in 1950. George is a romantic, which brings us to the fable part of the equation. Though he agreed to make a crime film, Jordan intended a morality play on "the total and absolute gap of understanding between a man and a woman."
Ex-con George makes two stops immediately upon his release: to his ex-wife's house to see his daughter (a disaster) and then to seek out his old (crime) boss Mortwell (a perfectly slimy Michael Caine) for gainful employment. George comes away with a job chauffering a high-class call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson) to hotels and manses, where he waits for twenty-minute stretches for his charge to return. At first the two are oil and water: Simone has learned to play the sophisticate since pulling herself up from street-walking, while the words "low profile" seem not to be in George's vocabulary. But it doesn't take long for the bickering pair—both of whom crave an elusive domesticity—to cross over into a tender, chaste intimacy. In an inversion of the scene that would play out so famously four years later in Pretty Woman, Simone takes George clothes shopping, suiting him up to blend into a ritzy hotel lobby. On the heels of George's remark to best friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane) "Angels are men," George finds himself trying to be an angel for teen prostitutes, in an attempt to remediate Simone's greatest regret: allowing a street walker named Cathy (Kate Hardie) to slip through the cracks. (The droll dialogue exchanges between Hoskins and Coltrane provide winning comic relief; delivering the dread is Clarke Peters of The Wire, coolly menacing as a pimp.)
Though the male takes his licks in Mona Lisa, it's clear that Jordan's sympathies lie more with loveable lout George than the "Mona Lisa" that is Simone. Simone's cold comfort after a short life of hard knocks is a slightly classier variety of prostitution, but in the course of this "negotiation of the sexes" story, it's George who winds up the too-willing victim of femme fatality. At issue is how wittingly Simone gets her new colleague into trouble: is she a conscious manipulator or simply too wrapped up in her own drama to show proper care for George's? It's a narrative choice to make Simone mysterious nearly to the end, as we're seeing her from George's cloudy perspective; since Tyson fulfills this aim so skillfully, and Hoskins gives such a potently aching performance in every scene, the film arguably plays into male negativity about the female personality's manipulation of the heterosexual power dynamic. Still, this is a story of male domination over females through social design and threat of violence, and if George winds up in a grave, he has dug it himself with his own romantic ignorance, his projection of his own desire onto that inscrutable beauty. As a study of social façades as a means of social climbing, and as a character study of Hoskins' would-be angel, Mona Lisa excels: to us at least, George wears his heart on his sleeve.
The hi-def transfer on Image's debut Blu-ray of Mona Lisa only takes up 16 GB of space on a single-layer disc, but it's still a darn sight better looking than previous DVD issues. So we have an improvement, but we might have seen a more dramatic one had the disc been encoded with more visual information. As it stands, the picture is more accurate in color and offers more noticeable detail than standard definition; it's primarily the low-light scenes that suffer from a bit of macroblocking noise. While technically encoded as a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, the disc's sound offers nothing but stereo directionality. This half-truth in advertising doesn't take anything away from an otherwise adequate and faithful track: this older, low-budget film probably shouldn't be expected to sonically impress beyond basic clarity and a sound balance of elements.
The extras found on Criterion's DVD release and the UK DVD and Blu-ray releases don't show up on Image's disc, which only includes the film's "Trailer" (2:32, SD).
With basically nothing to offer in the extras department, this disc isn't exactly a slam-dunk for double-dippers; but those who have never bought Mona Lisa on home video will have an easier time going for this nice-priced release.
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