Monday, January 15, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #48: Mona Lisa

Cast: Bob Hoskins (George), Cathy Tyson (Simone), Michael Caine (Mortwell), Robbie Coltrane (Thomas), Clarke Peters (Anderson), Kate Hardie (Cathy), Zoë Nathenson (Jeannie), Sammi Davis (May), Rod Bedall (Torry), Joe Brown (Dudley), Pauline Melville (George’s Wife), Hossein Karimbeik (Raschid).

Crew: Neil Jordan (director), Patrick Cassavetti and Stephen Woolley (producers), Neil Jordan and David Leland (writers), Michael Kamen (music), Roger Pratt (cinematography), Lesley Walker (editor), Jamie Leonard (production designer).

Synopsis: George gets out of prison after serving seven years. He gets a job from his old boss, Mortwell, driving high class prostitute Simone to her clients. She asks George to help her friend Kathy, a teenage prostitute. Both women were being pimped by a violent, brutal man called Anderson. George begins falling in love with Simone. He discovers Anderson works for Mortwell. When George visits Mortwell at home, he finds Kathy being used by a client of Mortwell. George rescues Kathy but Mortwell sees them escape. George, Simone and Kathy go to Brighton. George realises Simone and Kathy are lovers. Simone used him to get Kathy away. Mortwell and Anderson find the fugitives, but Simone murders her two hunters. She is ready to murder George too, despite everything he has done for her. George leaves, a sadder, less naïve man…

Irish writer/director Neil Jordan originally began developing this story with Sean Connery in mind as the central character. Jordan invited screenwriter David Leland to write a screenplay based on the concept. The director then wrote six more drafts, inviting Leland to pass criticism on his work. Connery was approached for the role of George but the Scotsman was busy on another project and Jordan shifted his focus to Bob Hoskins. The London actor eventually agreed to star in the feature, after completing work on Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty (1986). Jordan began writing new drafts with Hoskins in mind.

The film was originally to be financed by EMI but the multinational suddenly pulled out after a change in corporate strategy. Jordan began hastily searching for new funding and secured the backing from Handmade Films, owned by former Beatle George Harrison. Handmade had released Hoskins’ breakthrough movie The Long Good Friday (1980).

Mona Lisa was shot on location in London and Brighton at the end of 1985. Caine joined the picture for five days of filming, playing the murderous gangland boss Mortwell. His presence was crucial to ensure foreign distribution sales for the picture. Caine told the BBC programme Film 86 what his role required: ‘What you need is a leading actor, except it’s too small for a leading actor to do it. My great friend is Bob Hoskins and I am great admirer of Neil Jordan. So I said I’d do the part for them.’

In the film’s publicity material, Caine said playing a completely evil, unsympathetic character was another attraction: ‘It’s a great deal of fun for me to play someone who is an absolute, frightening creep. He’s absolutely based on reality. I grew up in that milieu, you see. I’ve had a whale of a time … shouting and screaming at Bob, frightening the life out of everybody … I’m not a tough guy at all, but I really look it when I play it.’

Jordan recalled working with Caine for Robert Seller’s 2003 book Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: ‘We only had him for about a week, and he’d be quite impatient … you’d feel he’d want to get it in two or three takes. And then I’d get him to develop it and develop it and suddenly he wouldn’t want to go … It was like a man who really wanted to act seriously and here was a part he could get his teeth into. It was wonderful working with him because he is such a good actor. It was wonderful actually getting him to express the dark-hearted stuff. Michael loved playing that part.’

The picture made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1986, where Hoskins won the best actor award and Jordan was nominated for the prestigious Golden Palm. The R-rated movie got a limited release in America a month later. Reviews were strong, particularly for Hoskins’ performance, and the picture grossed nearly $6 million. It reached Britain in September to more praise, with reviewers noting Caine’s short but telling performance. In 1987 Hoskins won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for best actor, and was nominated for an Oscar. Mona Lisa was released on video soon afterwards.

In a BFI poll to find the Top 100 British movies of the twentieth century, Mona Lisa was one of seven Caine pictures on the list, being voted 67th. A DVD version was issued in 2001, with a commentary track and archive footage from 1986. In April 2003 Neil Jordan told the San Francisco Examiner he had been approached by a producer interested in updating Mona Lisa. The director expressed incredulity at the idea: ‘They asked me if I would remake it! Can you believe that?’

Reviews: ‘A film to see again, with the certainty that each viewing will add something new.’ – MFB
‘A pic that skilfully combines comedy and thriller, romance and sleaze. Michael Caine is … in a generously self-effacing supporting role as a sinister, dangerous vice king.’ – Variety

Verdict: Mona Lisa is powerful picture that pushes a lot of buttons. It manages to present humour, pathos, skin-crawling distaste and excitement without ever being gratuitous or striking a wrong note. Jordan lets his story build gradually while maintaining a remorseless progression towards the inevitably, bloody denouement. Hoskins delivers a career-best performance as the naïve George, falling in love with a manipulative lesbian prostitute. Caine’s role is small but exudes almost as much menace as he did in the whole of Get Carter – even while stroking a white rabbit. This is a compelling, intelligent film.

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