In advance of his new film Greta, set to arrive in April, we continue a chronological exploration of the filmography of Irish director Neil Jordan…
After a sojourn into the realms of Gothic dark fantasy in The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan veers back toward territory he explored in his first picture, delivering in the process not only his most accomplished works to date, but one of the highlights of his varied cinematic career.
Mona Lisa saw Jordan ply his trade with HandMade Films, who since being formed by George Harrison (yes, the Beatle) in order to bankroll Monty Python’s controversial The Life of Brian in 1979, had emerged as one of the growing, innovative production companies in British cinema, developing pictures such as Terry Gilliam’s curious Time Bandits in 1981 and a year earlier, John Mackenzie’s seminal British crime picture The Long Good Friday, which made a star of Bob Hoskins. Mona Lisa continued that ascent of stardom for Hoskins in the lead role as one of the UK’s most exciting character actors.
You see while Hoskins is the protagonist of Jordan’s neo-noir crime drama, which sees the director using a London setting for the first time, his leading man George is by far a conventional hero within what is without doubt an unconventional, melancholic romantic picture. There is a real sadness that pervades Mona Lisa, despite George’s inherent everyman optimism and the strings of Nat King Cole singing his take on the titular figure, of course so named after Leonardo da Vinci’s most famed Renaissance portrait. Jordan’s film is one of intentional contradictions.
It is also, in more than a few places, quietly heartbreaking.
Hoskins, who won numerous awards for playing George including being feted at the Cannes Film Festival, is a man completely out of touch with his surroundings. A career crook just out of prison, George has a wife who hates him, a teenage daughter being shielded from him, a former boss called Mortwell (a wonderfully oily turn by Michael Caine, riffing off a carefully cultivated cinematic persona over decades) who promised to look after him but is conspicuously absent, and even now black people living on the street he once lived in. “How long have they been here?” George asks his friend Thomas (an affable Robbie Coltrane), as if he entirely missed the emigration of the Windrush generation.
Jordan works to present a modern London which has moved on, or is moving on, from the gangster glamour of previous decades. Thomas is now making his trade peddling tacky ornaments which people in the Thatcherite capitalist boom of the 80’s are lapping up. The London we see is one dominated by the sex trade, an industry which overlaps the multiple social and class hierarchies that George encounters. Simone (Cathy Tyson), the high class call girl he is employed to drive, dabbles with rich Middle Eastern businessman in one vein and trawls the harsh streets of Soho on the other where down and out hookers peddle their wares.
Throughout, George just does not understand, and frequently says as much. Jordan and co-writer David Leland have George often question his surroundings, question people around him, asking why, what does that mean, what is this for? Hoskins plays him as a resourceful and hard man, schooled by a life of hard knocks and time inside, but he is ultimately a clueless romantic. With a failed marriage behind him, George sees past the seediness of Simone’s trade to an ideal behind her, a possibility of the kind of true love Nat King Cole sings of – or in one montage sequence, Genesis leak on the soundtrack with the, at the time contemporary, ‘In Too Deep’.
That describes George, for certain. He is chasing an illusion. Tyson, in her film debut, imbues Simone with a working class beauty that belies the attempt at high class prostitution, but throughout the character remains something of an enigma – does she feel something for George or is it as fake as the sexual world she inhabits? Cole sings about Mona Lisa, indeed Thomas has a picture of Da Vinci’s legendary portrait on his fridge, but Simone very much *is* this film’s Mona; Da Vinci’s portrait has entered history as a piece filled with hidden meaning and ambiguity, and that’s what Jordan strives for with the melancholy of his film.
Many of the themes and choices in Mona Lisa speak to many of the broader themes already apparent in Jordan’s work. After hinting at sexuality in Angel and confronting it Gothically in The Company of Wolves, he makes forbidden sex key to the entire narrative of Mona Lisa; George ends up sleeping with the underage prostitute May (Sammi Davis, also making her film debut), not realising she is the same age as his daughter, and regretting the decision despite being consumed by a world where such dark, disturbing realities exist. Mona Lisa is not exploitative in its depiction of this but when May asks George to buy her an ice cream, you realise just how sinister the whole enterprise is.
Jordan focuses less on religion and faith in Mona Lisa but he does choose to imbue the church as the secret hiding place of the prostitute he ends up seeking because, in her words, “it’s the one place no one ever goes”. A seedy, faithless, big city world where immorality is rife, capitalism runs amok, and the old-fashioned, 1950’s romantic ideal of love and family which George naively aspires to exists only in the mind. It should make for more of a bleak portrait than Jordan ends up painting but there is a dark gallows humour to Mona Lisa, and thanks to Hoskins’ skilled, sympathetic portrayal, it becomes the story of a low level London boy who you oddly want to win the girl’s heart.
Go into Mona Lisa expecting that kind of traditional romantic narrative, however, and you are likely to leave disappointed. Neil Jordan is not that kind of filmmaker. He doesn’t believe that sex and romance are always happy and secure bedfellows and is deeply concerned about the abuse and corruption of the innocent through vice and exploitation. Mona Lisa in lesser hands could have ended up an unlikely tale of romance, one indeed that crosses race boundaries given Hoskins is white and Tyson black, but there are much richer, deeper and darker ideas in play here.
Mona Lisa is, certainly, Jordan’s strongest work up to this point. It has at times the bleak starkness of Angel with the river of forbidden romance of The Company of Wolves, and manages to combine them both with some terrific performances of emerging and established British talent, a fine script and assured direction. It comes more fully formed than Jordan’s previous films, more readily packaged, and even while the director proves he is excited at exploring different styles, settings and genres, it is evidence that his talents are evolving with each passing film.
Inevitably, a blip on the radar was always going to veer on the horizon…
Mona Lisa is now available to rent on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.