As a teacher who plants the seeds of rebellion, Julia Roberts evokes the
spirit if not the soul of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969) with a nod to
the "Dead Poets Society" (1989) too.
It's 1953 when free-spirited Katherine Watson (Julia) arrives from
Berkeley, California, to teach art history at Wellesley College. She's eager to
encourage her affluent, intelligent students to pursue careers not husbands - a
subversively bohemian concept that falls on deaf ears, particularly when bitchy
influential blueblood Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) marries mid-semester and
even brainy Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) can't wrap her mind around balancing
Yale Law School and WASPy matrimony. "I thought I was headed to a place that
would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives," wails Katherine, who wants
to make a difference but, at first, only the unabashedly sensual Giselle Levy
(Maggie Gyllenhaal) seems to get the message.
Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal and directed by Mike Newell
("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), this dated coming-of-age-drama grapples with
female empowerment, but the oppressively provincial era that's depicted seems
more '40s than '50s - and, over the years, Wellesley College has nurtured
admirably independent feminists, including Hillary Clinton.
While incandescent Julia Roberts radiates polish and passion, Kirsten
Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin and Maggie Gyllenhaal deliver richly detailed,
affecting performances as Marcia Gay Harden deftly steals scenes as a dowdy
etiquette teacher. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Mona Lisa Smile" is
a poignant if stodgy 7. It's a potent chick-flick that strives to prove the
career vs. family issue is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
Copyright © 2003 Susan Granger