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Mona Lisa (DVD)


Mona Lisa (DVD)

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Touching, and sometimes dwelling, on issues of race, class, sexual identity, voyeurism, and the passing of time, Neil Jordan's 1986 film Mona Lisa might have seemed too busy for its own good had Jordan not sensibly wrapped it all in a brisk, involving thriller. Playing a low-level London gangster out of jail after a long stint, Bob Hoskins returns to a world that passed him by long ago. Alienated from his family and harboring outmoded notions of race—a consummate "little Englander," as Jordan puts it on the audio commentary he shares with Hoskins on this new DVD—Hoskins is given a job escorting an elegant, tough black prostitute (Cathy Tyson) on her rounds. Instructing him in the ways of dress and manners, she challenges his views while stirring his feelings. As he waits for her, he repeatedly listens to Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa," but seems unable to connect its expression of ineffable desire to his own situation. He soon becomes drawn into Tyson's attempts to rescue an underage former colleague from an abusive pimp, and as Hoskins searches, Jordan offers a glimpse of the seamier part of London that could stand in for the darkness his protagonist (an essentially good man, however retrograde his views) tries to keep at bay. Acting as Virgil to Hoskins' Dante, Tyson effectively portrays a woman who has plumbed the depths of hell and emerged with most of her soul intact, even if she now has to take desperate measures to keep it that way. But Mona Lisa is Hoskins' film from start to finish. His character seems to have lost everything, yet finds he can potentially lose more, or redeem himself—if not from the past, then for the future. As a thriller, Jordan's film chillingly conveys the depths dug by one person's willingness to exploit the needs of another, his underworld London serving as a topography of greed and repackaged desire. His vision is most immediately reminiscent of from the hellish New York of Scorsese's Taxi Driver, but Hoskins provides the crucial difference, spiking the nihilism by emerging from the abyss with a glimmer of hope instead of a thousand-yard stare.