I streamed Mona Lisa Smile yesterday on Netflix. The movie stars Julia Roberts as Katherine Ann Watson, Kirsten Dunst as Elizabeth “Betty” Warren, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Giselle Levy, Ginnifer Goodwin as Connie Baker and Julia Stiles as Joan Brandwyn. Mona Lisa Smile was released on December 19, 2003 and directed by Mike Newell.
I am not sure why a movie like this was made in the 21st century when we have had female CEO’s, Secretary of State and in other very high positions for years. This subject is beyond played out and worn out now.
I had mixed feelings about the character that Julia Roberts played. I did like Katherine because she insisted on embracing life. Katherine was smart and she was not playing that down just because in 1953 women were not expected to have careers outside of the home. Katherine said that she believes women could have a career, a husband and children. Basically we don’t have to give up anything; we can have it all. I agree with Katherine, but at the same time she seemed to hold something against women who really wants to be a wife and mother and has no interest in having a career as well. To me the point is that we should have the choice of having it all, or choosing one over the other. If a woman wants to be a full-time wife and mother then that is also a wonderful and respectable choice. Being a wife and mom is not something any woman should ever feel “small” about.
Julia Roberts as Katherine Ann Watson
Katherine Ann Watson is a graduate student from California who accepts a position teaching the history of art at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Wellesley College is a very conservative and private liberal arts college for women. In leaving California, Katherine also left her boyfriend behind. Well, that is fine if you are not in love and cannot see yourself spending the rest of your life with him. I believe in spreading your wings; especially if there isn’t anything to hold you back. Go for it!
On the first day of class Katherine learns that the students memorized the entire class syllabus. The students are not welcoming to her at all and are quite rude. The next day Katherine changes the syllabus and begins teaching the students about the French Impressionists and art interpretations.
Kirsten Dunst as Betty Warren
Betty Warren, like the rest of her family, is very conservative in her views. College for Betty is more like a holding cell until you marry into a good family. A woman’s main and only role according to Betty is to be a good wife and mother. Betty strongly resents Katherine for beginning to teach the students to expand their mind and reach for careers. Betty is also a snob and a trouble maker. She is the editor of the school newsletter and writes some scathing articles that gets a nurse fired and Katherine in trouble with the college.
During the semester Betty marries into a “good family”. The marriage was arranged by both families. After the wedding Betty doesn’t show up for many of the classes because she is busy being a “good wife”. The college allows married students a number a days that they can miss classes, but Katherine tells Betty that she will grade her completely on merit so she had better start coming to class regularly again.
Julia Stiles as Joan Brandwyn
Joan Brandwyn has dreams of becoming an attorney and is enrolled as a pre-law student. Katherine encourages Joan to apply to Yale Law School. Joan is also engaged to be married. Shortly after Joan is accepted into Yale, she elopes and puts away dreams of becoming a lawyer. Joan is very happy with her choice because she wants most to be a wife and mother. Katherine has a hard time accepting that and encourages Joan to apply to a law school locally. Deep down Joan doesn’t want to do that though. She really looks forward to being a full-time wife and mother without having a career and Joan finally has to set Katherine straight about it.
Ginnifer Goodwin as Connie Baker
My favorite character in Mona Lisa Smile is Connie Baker. I guess it is because Connie is the “underdog” in this movie. Connie is looked down upon by Betty who enjoys making self-esteem busting remarks to her.
Connie starts dating a young man named Charlie who happens to be one of Betty’s cousins. Charlie and Connie really care for one another and have a great time bonding. However, one day Betty tells Connie that Charlie is only using her and is engaged to marry someone else more suited to him. Connie unfortunately believes it and breaks things off with Charlie.
As time passes by Connie runs into Charlie and finds out that Betty lied to her. Charlie had long ago broken off his engagement to a woman named Deb and truly cared Connie. Connie gets the chance to confront Betty. It is obvious that Betty just didn’t want Connie to be happy. That is usually the case when one is miserable. Misery loves company as the saying goes. Betty is one of the most miserable and pathetic characters I have ever seen.
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Giselle Levy
Giselle Levy is a student who is Jewish in a sea of waspy young women. Giselle is very liberal in her views and very supportive of Katherine. Giselle has affairs with one of the teachers at the college and with a married man.
Betty is always taunting Giselle and one evening everything comes to a head. It is Betty who ends up having a mini breakdown. Betty’s life is unraveling. Her husband is never home and is cheating on her already. Betty cannot go to her mother for any compassion because her mother’s own strictly conservative views keeps Betty at arm’s length..
As all of the plots in this movie come to a conclusion the movie ends with the students graduation. Betty has come to appreciate Katherine and is even thankful to her. Betty has filed for divorce and is moving away to New York to pursue a career. Katherine has decided not to accept a second term teaching at Wellesley College. Instead Katherine is heading for Europe to embrace life. I liked how the movie ended because it does so on a positive and promising note for Katherine and the students. The characters close one chapter of their lives and a new beginning is before them.