December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.