It’s been a little over a year since Bob Hoskins passed away and a couple of decades since his 80s heyday, but the British industry has yet to find an actor who could match the mad charismatic energy and range that Hoskins conveyed in a variety of memorable performances. One early gem in Hoskins’ terrific film oeuvre, which also landed him his 3rd BAFTA and one and only Oscar nomination, is Neil Jordan’s 1986 seedy London neo-noir, Mona Lisa.
Bob Hoskins’ found breakthrough success playing the iconic London gangster Harold Shand in the The Long Good Friday (1980), but it wasn’t until he turned up as the loveable cockney rogue George in Mona Lisa that Hoskins solidified his place in the spotlight as one of the most enigmatic actors to come out of England in the 80s.
In Mona Lisa, George has just stumbled out of a long criminal sentence only to find himself back on the streets – streets he no longer recognises. Times have changed and the world is in a state of modernisation. With his wife and estranged daughter turning their backs on him due to his ugly criminal background, George has little going for himself. Looking up old criminal contacts, George lands himself a job with mob boss Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine), driving a high-end call girl from client to client. The call girl in question is Simone (Cathy Tyson). She’s feisty, distant and absolutely gorgeous.
From the outset, George’s bumbling, hard-headed nature rubs against Simone’s forward thinking, and they constantly find themselves at odds with each other. But when night encroaches and George drives Simone through the streets of London, the lonely pair share brief moments of connection. But still, hiding behind her sexual mystique, Simone conceals her true face and muddled past from all – especially George. Finally though, this barrier begins to crumble when she starts to confide in her driver and opens up to him. Before long we too are riding with George as he tries to rescue a close friend who is trapped in the seedy criminal underworld.
Next year marks the thirtieth anniversary since Mona Lisa was released, so while it is far from a modern film and has be judged as such, the sexual politics did still leave a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. Despite Simone’s thick skin she is still utterly dependent on George throughout the movie. This contradiction left me to question Jordan and writer David Leland’s motivations for giving the inept George the driving narrative force as opposed to letting Simone handle the situation herself. Simone’s lack of motivation serves for the structural narrative rather than any form of misogyny, and while this aspect might not bother some audience members, I personally found Simone’s lack of influence on her own fate contradicted her importance within the movie.
Stylistically, one element of the movie that particularly jumped out to me were the overt Martin Scorsese influences that Jordan injects into the movie. Some were nuanced whilst others were rather on the nose, from the rough, somewhat naturalistic aesthetics resembling the slightly elevated visuals from Mean Streets, to Mona Lisa’s story following similar narrative beats to Taxi Driver. Even the film’s conclusion follows a similar path to Taxi Driver; Travis Bickle was a troubled Vietnam vet. George is an old gangster stuck on a management ladder. Both characters are products of their environments yet try to fight against it. The difference is that Scorsese wasn’t rushing with the narrative pace in Taxi Driver, whereas for Jordan, his characters appear to hurry the film to its conclusion. Mona Lisa plays more like a straight genre thriller whereas Taxi Driver excelled at sidestepping narrative expectations. There is certainly connective tissue between the films, for better or worse. They’d certainly make a terrific late night double bill.
Neil Jordan’s erotic gangster thriller is certainly a fun watch for what it is. The film’s sloppy sexual politics may grate if you focus on them, but as entertainment, the film fills the less than two hour run time with interesting dialogue and charming characters. Arrow Film’s beautiful Blu-ray presentation is certainly worth checking out for anyone looking to fill the void that Hoskins left.
Mona Lisa is released by Arrow Video in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray now.