Directed by: Mike Newell
Written by:Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dominic West, Marcia Gay Harden, Ginnifer Goodwin
Released: February 19, 2004
Grade: B

At Wellesley College, you will find some of the country’s smartest girls.  In the class of 1953/54, there’s Betty Warren (Dunst), Joan Brandwyn (Stiles), Giselle Levy (Gyllenhaal) and Connie Baker (Goodwin) who are all close friends.  In their dormitory of an evening, they study religiously and talk of men and marriage.  It’s a school rich in tradition and the conservative school board likes it that way.

And then along came Katherine Watson (Roberts).  I say this with trepidation and you may already see where I’m coming from.  Katherine is a young teacher with fresh insight, unique teaching methods and different views.  She doesn’t believe a woman’s sole purpose in life is to find a husband.  She believes a woman can also have a college education and a successful career.  Sure enough, the school board is rattled but the students adore her and she’s become the breath of fresh air so desperately needed at Wellesley.

Unfortunately this theme is forced down our throat in large doses.  There’s nothing subtle about the screenplay and it’s all a little too “preachy” to win my vote.  Rather than letting the story tell the message, the message seems to be telling the story.

Julia Roberts is fine in the leading role but too much attention is paid to her plight.  The supporting characters are seldom seen and any emotion we are to feel for them doesn’t come through.  Also hindering their performances is a hurried screenplay which has them changing personalities in the blink of an eye.  I won’t outline specifics here but the development and ultimate fate of Julia Stiles’ character is a very good example.

Katherine finds a love interest in Bill Dunbar (West), a teacher at the school and this does little more than increase the film’s running time.  It’s a trivial subplot when I would have preferred more focus on the two characters Katherine lives with – an aging teacher stuck in a world of routine (played by Marcia Gay Harden) and a teacher fired for a simple mistake but with an interesting past (played by Juliet Stevenson).

I know it’s unrelated to the actual film but I feel compelled to criticise the trailer that’s been showing in cinemas for the past few months.  I’ve seen it several times now and in hindsight, it gives away virtually every plot detail including the finale.  Why show a film’s final scene in the trailer?  Is there any need for this?  Perhaps this is why I found the conclusion so disappointingly brief.

When it comes down to the crunch, Mona Lisa Smile is still worth a look just to see some of Hollywood’s best actresses light up the screen.  Just enough to bring a “smile” to my face.