Mona Lisa Smile is a 2003 American film directed by Mike Newell, starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles. It tells the story of Katherine Ann Watson (played by Julia Roberts), a teacher who comes to teach at Wellesley College, a conservative women's private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, United States in 1953.
Watson encourages her students to study to pursue serious careers. She uses modern art to suggest that they need not conform to stereotype. She feels that women can do more than solely adopt the roles of wives and mothers.
Watson's teaching methodology is very different to methods deemed acceptable by the school's directors, who believe firmly that Watson should not use her class to express her points of views or befriend students, and should stick only to teaching art. Her job is at stake. Unaffected, Watson becomes more forceful in her speeches and believes that she needs to instill a spirit of change among her students.
The film also focuses on the lives of various students of Watson's. Elizabeth "Betty" Warren (Jones) (Kirsten Dunst), a rich girl with a conservative, domineering mother marries a man who is unfaithful to her. Constance "Connie" Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) has insecurities about her body while searching for a boyfriend; Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), one of the few Jewish students at Wellesley at the time, who is also one of the first students to admire Watson; and Joan Brandwyn (Donegal) (Julia Stiles), who is initially conflicted about whether to pursue law school after graduation or become a housewife to Tommy Donegal (Topher Grace).
Although many are initially put off by Watsn's style, as the film progresses, more students begin to admire her, including Betty, despite being her most vehement critic.
Watson chooses to leave after one year, by which time she had firmly made her mark as not only an exceptional teacher but also as a woman to look upto, who strongly held to her beliefs and ideals. As Betty narrates, she calls her "an extraordinary woman" and an individual who "seeks truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image."
The film clearly shows the battle between the modern and the conventional. Or rather between rigid norms and structured patters to new age ideas (Represented through Art forms). This movie shows us how a woman (Ms. Watson) is the symbol of change, coming to inspire and to make a difference in the minds of young women who are programmed by those who are the moral lawmakers of the land. Taking Art as the subject of inspection, we see a conflict between Renaissance and Modern Art (Picasso). While the Renaissance focused on perfect structure and defined lines, modern art depicted the free mind with “abstract” ruling the artist’s mind. Art is symbolic of the times and thought-processes of the people of those times.
Programmed minds is what Ms. Watson tries to demolish. The closed minded thinking is brought to notice right from the beginning when she gets a job and comes to teach. On her first day of class, she gets terrified of the students who seem to know everything written in the syllabus. She sees how the students have read every word from the book and know it as well as the back of their hand. She leaves the hall, shaken, but surer of what she must do next class.
Getting her own preference of paintings, ranging from one she had done when she was a child to another, which Betty called “grotesque”, she asks them to “look beyond the paint” and open their minds to a new idea. And there begins the journey to change, the path to breaking grounds and living by one’s own potential mind. The students are taught to look beyond the four walls of the classroom and see how they can contribute to the outside world, beyond the realms of being wives, or daughters or mothers.
The four characters (Ms. Watson’s students) are interesting to analyze. Betty is the most insecure of the lot, although she seems to the be the most confident. Her rich background has made her arrogant and sharp-tongued, always on the prowl to get others in trouble because of her so-called “high-ideals”. She is strongly against Ms. Watson’s teachings and bent of thinking. She says “her subversive and political teachings encourage our Wellesley girls to reject the roles they were born to fill”.
“The roles they were born to fill”, stays in my mind as I ponder on the words that dictate our life. These roles we play is essentially what makes us who we are, or so do many people think. Is it time we looked beyond these roles? Or do we as Betty believes, fill them as destines by our very birth?
As important as Mr. Watson’s radical outlook was, it is equally important for us to see this conflict that many girls face today. How do I as a girl born in this society, to this family pursue my dreams but also choose to make and live as a family? Are both possible? According to Ms. Watson it is, as she said “ you can bake your cake and eat it too!” She also observes seeing the dogma of the rules of the institute that she thought she was headed “to a place that would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives.”
Connie symbolizes the girl who is insecure of her figure fearing she may not be able to attract eligible bachelors. Here, again we see the image of what “perfect beauty” is supposed to be. Giselle sees in Ms. Watson a little of herself, who she hasn’t yet discovered. Her character is one, which tries to seduce men and get happiness out of the comfort of knowing that she is wanted. She grows to admire Ms. Watson for her strength of character and firmness of belief. Joan Brandwyn is the perfect example of someone who does exactly what she wants. Choosing to do away with an offer to Harvard Law school, to take care of family, she chooses out of her judgement what will make her most happy. She justifies her decision to Ms. Watson thus “You stand in class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don't. To you a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a center hall colonial. She has no depth, no intellect, no interests. You're the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.”
Although bordering on dangerously radical, Ms. Watson manages to create a lasting impression on her students as she did on me. Patriarchy has ruled most of the world today, essentially because of this attitude of the sexes. One of domination by the males and submission by the females. And so the equation falls perfect or so we think. But at whose cost? Only once we empower ourselves can we empower others. Ms. Watson did just that.
I find the title of the movie apt for its theme. Like the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa, we wonder what really goes on in the minds of so many young women, as they undergo conflicts of identity, roles and responsibilities. Behind the smile lies the real You.
Watch it for its sharp dialogues, wit, conflictual thoughts and situations that gets us thinking on the relation of the study of Art - its form and structure being representative of the way we think and the way we live.
“Not all who wander are aimless. Especially not those who seek truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image.” Betty Warren