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“Mona Lisa Smile” by Mike Newell Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: Mar 14th, 2020


Mental emancipation is one of the roles played by education. However, many people do not emancipate themselves because of preconceived ideas, beliefs, and values acquired from their parents.

Katherine’s efforts to emancipate girls from mental conditioning fail when Betty asks her to obey a decision of becoming a mother, and a wife after graduation. Katherine does not give up and continues to urge the girls to pursue careers instead of merely getting married and becoming wives.

Movie information

Mona Lisa Smile is a drama film released in 2003. Revolution Studios and Columbia Studios produced it with help from Red Om Films Productions. Mike Newell directed the movie, which stars Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Kirsten Dunst.

It was written by Lawrence Konner and ran for 117 minutes. The title connotes the subject of an ancient painting by Leonardo da Vinci known as Mona Lisa.

The movie explores various contributions by social structures in shaping women’s lives in olden days by putting limits on their potential.

It also examines how girls replicate superficial attitudes in a society mainly controlled and subjugated by men. Also, it explores the expectations of girls concerning their lives after graduating from college.

Character and plot summary

The main character (Katherine) is very enthusiastic when she gets a job at Wellesley College. The private arts college admits women only, as well as promoting conservative ideals. She takes the job and starts teaching with great passion.

She sadly discovers that even though her students have memorized the whole syllabus, they cannot use their brains to make individual decisions. As a result, she spends ample time introducing them to modern art.

She disagrees with the College President for encouraging class discussions and failing to adhere to the syllabus in class. The President warns Katherine and orders her to follow the syllabus failure to which she would lose her job.

After getting used to her students, and realizing that their main agenda was to graduate and get married, she seeks to inspire them to do and achieve more with their lives. One of the students, Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) had dreams of becoming a lawyer.

To inspire her, Katherine encourages Joan Brandwyn to apply for enrollment at Yale School of Law. Fortunately, she is offered an opportunity, but instead of joining, she elopes with her fiancé Tommy.

She derives much happiness from her relationship with Tommy and decides to become a wife after graduation. This realization prompts her to tell Katherine to stop talking to her about careers because she has already decided to become a wife.

Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) is a traditionalist who does not concur with Katherine’s ideas. She does not comprehend why Katherine is still single. She is responsible for the exit of Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson), the resident nurse.

Betty exposed Amanda for giving contraceptives to students in one of the two editorials that she wrote for the school magazine. In the other editorial, she attacks Katherine for telling the girls to pursue education to higher levels rather than becoming wives and mothers.

Betty is a victim of an arranged marriage because her parents have chosen Spencer (Jordan Bridges) to marry her. She expects exemption from attending classes, but Katherine insists that she will not be lenient in giving her a poor grade if she performs poorly.

Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) is in a tumultuous relationship. She is dating Betty’s cousin whose parents have chosen Deb to be his wife. Connie learns about the arrangement from Betty. Connie ends the relationship because she sees no future with Charlie.

However, they later reunite because Charlie does not intend to marry Deb because he does not love her as much as he loves Connie.

Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) thinks differently from the other girls. She concurs with Katherine’s views and ideas because she considers her as someone who has followed her desires and dreams.

Also, she agrees with her because she does not like the fact that she is among the Jewish minority in the school. Her liberal views are expressed in her relationship with a married professor.

Katherine opens up to the girls and explains how war separated her from her fiancé. Since then, she has been in several relationships. She turns down a proposal from her boyfriend and instead starts a relationship with Bill who is a professor at the college.

Katherine makes the professor promise that he will stop having affairs with students. Their relationship does not last for long because Katherine does not trust him.

On the other hand, the marriage between Betty and Spencer fails because Spencer concentrates on doing business rather than taking care of Betty. Moreover, Giselle tells Betty about Spencer’s extramarital affairs, which hungers her.

Betty’s mother tries to persuade her to remain married to Spencer to avoid being labeled scandalous. In response, Betty asks her if Mona Lisa’s smile is an expression of happiness. She goes on and divorces Spencer. Her mother learns of her divorce during graduation.

Betty also informs her mother that she was considering joining law school. The school management imposes strict rules o Katherine.

She is expected to strictly follow the syllabus that is approved by the college, prepare and present lesson plans for authorization, and desist from talking to the girls about anything else other than what is in the syllabus. Being a liberal woman, Katherine rejects the new rules.

A key idea

The idea behind the movie is excellent. The efforts put forward by Katherine to emancipate the girls from narrow mindedness are commendable.

During her first day in class, she realizes that the girls were knowledgeable because of memorizing the syllabus but were unable to think constructively and critically. As a result, she decides to adopt a different teaching style to emancipate them from limited mindsets.

This scenario is common in today’s society where parents decide what their children become. Even though the students and administration reject her style and try hard to squash her determination, she does not give up. She continues to advocate for what is right based on her beliefs.

Evaluation and Critique of the movie

The movie is great, and I would recommend it to any movie enthusiast or curious learner. First, I like the movie because of its theme. Many children are victims of parental control and do not follow their dreams, but those of their parents.

Secondly, the depiction of different characters is in line with their thinking. They act according to their upbringing and stick to their ideals despite pressure from Katherine to change their views. However, the movie has several weaknesses.

The storyline is predictive, and the characters are very elusive. Despite the weaknesses, the characters display quality performances, and I think the movie is worth watching.

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