Criterion Review: MONA LISA

A noir-thriller given heart by the impeccable pairing of Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson


The brilliant breakthrough film by writer-director Neil Jordan journeys into the dark heart of the London underworld to weave a gripping, noir-infused love story. Bob Hoskins received a multitude of honors — including an Oscar nomination — for his touchingly vulnerable, not-so-tough-guy portrayal of George, recently released from prison and hired by a sinister mob boss (Michael Caine) to chauffeur call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson, in a celebrated performance) between high-paying clients. George’s fascination with the elegant, enigmatic Simone leads him on a dangerous quest through the city’s underbelly, where love is a weakness to be exploited and betrayed. Jordan’s colorful dialogue and eye for evocatively surreal details lend a dreamlike sheen to Mona Lisa, an unconventionally romantic tale of damaged people searching for tenderness in an unforgiving world.

It’s been over 7 years since we lost Bob Hoskins. Short in stature, but mighty in presence, he’s always added a gritty authenticity and charm to every role he’s taken. Revered for his work in films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Long Good Friday, perhaps the most acclaim came with this months new entry to the Criterion collection, Mona Lisa. Garnering him a best actor win at the ’86 Canne festival, as well as an Academy Award nomination, it’s a British gangster film that has a surprisingly emotional core, thanks to its two leads and their burgeoning relationship. Hoskins plays George, a man fresh out of prison and looking to for a way to make ends meet, but ends up finding much more. Pulled back into the London underworld by crime boss Mortwell (a truly unnerving Michael Caine), he’s put to work as a driver for one of his working girls. An assignment (and a ward) that immediately puts George on edge. Two contrasting but kindred souls, surrounded by a cloud of violence, who over time begin to replace distrust and distaste with something more profound.

Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire), who co-wrote the film alongside David Leland, delivers a gritty British gangster thriller, that rough around the edges 80s aesthetic, with a slight tilt into noir. Propulsive, edgy, and enough narrative twists to add to the allure. There’s plenty of social and societal commentary, this is during Thatcher’s Britain after all, but moreso in terms of male dominance and the violence so often associated with it. Planted in the middle is the curious, but brilliant positioning of Hoskins as a romantic lead, whose partnership with Cathy Tyson as Simone, adds another dimension to the whole endeavor.

Hoskins does here what he always does best. A gruff exterior that belies a heart of gold. Tyson’s Simone is the perfect foil to draw this out. A dance between them emerges based on their own histories and also their perceptions of each other. The pair are so alike, and yet contrasts to each other. George is rather short, working class, cranky and disheveled, Simone is tall, cultured,and altogether more well-presented and tranquil. While the film doesn’t overtly discuss race, it is a significant contributor to the dynamic, as well as some of the themes of the film. Each are also aware of the power and threat of the men within their circle, each has their own way of countering it, both determined to survive. George’s street-wise savvy, versus Simone’s skill at weaving an allure over men, something that undermines their relationship initially. They’re both in a situation where facade, secrets and lies keep them safe, and give them power. Jordan gradually builds this relationship and the shift in perceptions that comes from it, to complement and push the plot forward. Mona Lisa moves beyond a noir-thriller thanks to these entwined performances, adding layers and moments to the film that both shine and surprise.

The Package

Criterion’s release of Mona Lisa showcases a 2K scan and restoration of the film from a 35mm negative. Originally carried out by Arrow Films, and overseen by director Neil Jordan and cinematographer Roger Pratt. The image quality is strong, with impressive detail, color presentation/range, and natural grain. Some darker scenes do show up a little crushing and loss of integrity. Extra features are few in number, with only one ‘new’ addition:

  • Audio commentary from 1997 featuring Jordan and actor Bob Hoskins: Archival from 1996. Jordan focuses on the overall themes and character arcs, shooting the film, and how Mona Lisa connects to his previous films. Hoskins contributes stories about his encounters with Michael Caine, how he approached specific scenes, and built a rapport with Cathy Tyson
  • New conversation with Jordan and actor Cathy Tyson, moderated by critic Ryan Gilbey: Recorded this year, it’s a reflection on how the film was made, Jordan’s approach, reminiscing about shooting locations, and remembering Bob Hoskins
  • Interviews from 2015 with screenwriter David Leland and producer Stephen Woolley: Interesting discussion that runs down the first draft of the script, and then the changes made as Jordan got involved, the depiction of London in the film, and more notably when the casting switched from Caine as the lead, to Hoskins
  • Interview with Jordan and Hoskins from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival: A brief discussion with the pair about the preparation for the film, themes, script, and improvisation on set
  • PLUS: An essay by Gilbey: Contained in the liner notes, which also features information on the transfer/restoration

The Bottom Line

Mona Lisa is a gritty, engaging British gangster thriller. But where the film really carves out a niche is in the relationship between George and Simone. Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson add a beating heart to Neil Jordan’s effort, setting an emotional rhythm that drives us through this seedy tale.

Mona Lisa is available via Criterion now.

Previous post Fantastic Fest 2021: THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON is a Love Letter to Decades of Creepy Cinema
Next post Make it a Double: DEAR EVAN HANSEN & WONDERSTRUCK