Julia Roberts plays Katherine, a progressive art teacher from California who comes to New England in 1953 to teach at the stuffy Wellesley College. It’s her dream job, as Wellesley is ripe for change, and Katherine wants to make a difference. Upon her arrival, she encounters open hostility from both her bosses and pupils. The school board didn’t want to hire her in the first place, and expect her to stick to the rigid, outdated syllabus.
The girls, meanwhile, look down on her for her lack of breeding and apparent failure to snare a husband. The disappointment is mutual, as Katherine quickly realises the school is nothing but a finishing school for housewives, and the girls are unimaginative, reciting their textbooks rather than engaging with the subject.
Over time, of course, Katherine begins to build a relationship with the girls, and urges them to think for themselves; both in terms of their approach to art and their approach to life. The heart of the story is the development of four of the girls, an exceptional array of young talent in Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin. They play four very different characters all dealing with the same question: what are the limits to what an intelligent woman can achieve? At the start of the film"a good marriage" would be their united response, but the influence and example of Katherine open up other possibilities.
Mona Lisa Smile is beautifully shot, and the dazzling cast are always watchable – in particular the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose warmth and tenderness stand out against the glacial Dunst and Stiles. The film is superficially similar to Dead Poets Society, but where that film was passionate about poetry, Mona Lisa Smile simply uses art as a metaphor for the girls’ awakening. Despite its historical setting, it’s a film that deals with a very contemporary issue: can a woman really have it all? Surprisingly perhaps, it reminded me of nothing so much as Sex And The City.
However the film falls slightly flat, in part because it focuses on Katherine, who has the least interesting storyline. Katherine is supposed to represent some kind of parallel to the girls, a woman who is successful in her career but whose romantic life is in doubt. Julia Roberts is a fine and versatile actress, but she’s badly miscast here – she certainly wouldn’t be my first choice to play a woman left on the shelf.