Mona Lisa Smile is a gorgeous movie. Julia Roberts is a gorgeous first-year Art History professor in the gorgeous surroundings of Wellesley college in the 1950′s (the 1953-54 academic year to be exact). This being the 1950s, the girls who make up the all-girl student body are all well made-up at all times, even when hanging out in the dormitory with their hair in curlers.
In the post-war 1950s, America apparently encouraged women to leave the jobs they took during the war to return home so the men could take the jobs. I’ve always wondered whether that encouragement was as pervasive or as successful as we’ve been led to believe. That question must wait for another time because there’s no question about it in this movie. Society has demanded it and each and every Wellesley woman has accepted it and so the school’s entire mission is to turn out women who are well-educated charming supporters of their husbands.
Roberts’ character arrives completely unaware of Wellesley’s mission and unwilling to bend or conform. All of it is well-done. We feel Roberts’ shock as the school nurse is in trouble for handing out birth control. The fact that birth control was illegal then is given mere passing mention. No one talks about liability. Instead, it is a battle between “progressive” and “oppressive”. We feel her pain through difficult relationships and her frustration when the students’ fail to recognize or take her lifeline.
In the end, though, nothing changes. The students who change do so because their efforts to conform failed. Roberts’ character learns that she doesn’t fit in but doesn’t learn how to meet her needs and do what she loves. It’s presented as a success but to me, it felt hollow.
I enjoyed the movie while watching it but its glitter faded fast. Ten years from now, when the movie hits the rerun TV circuit, I suspect that I’ll be hardpressed to remember much about it.