George, a London gangster played by Bob Hoskins, is out of prison after seven years and is seeking work from his former employer Mortwell. George took the fall for Mortwell, and he wants compensation in the form of a job. George comes back to a cold reception, but a job is available and he ends up becoming a handler for Simone, a high class sex worker.
At first George and Simone are at odds with each other, but after a massive fight the two start to soften towards the other. Simone then asks George for a favor that ends up putting George in the middle of London’s underbelly and out of his depth.
First off, I love Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of my all-time faves) and believe he was perfect for this role. George is an old school brute, good with his fists and could have easily been a one-note character, but between Hoskins and the script a more complex and interesting character was formed.
Constantly, George is saying he doesn’t understand. Simone is clearly a mystery to him, as she is the opposite of what his image of a sex worker is. Simone might have a sharp tongue but she is also posh, smart, and graceful. George’s mind can’t compute why a woman like Simone would choose this life. And the more George falls for her the more confused he gets.
This struggle, George’s need to understand Simone, is why the movie is named Mona Lisa. The movie opens up with Nat Cole’s famous song and I think George could relate:
“Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?
Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there and they die there
Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?”
It’s not only Simone that is far from his understanding but the business his boss, Mortwell, is running now. He was only in jail for seven years and the whole world has changed. Thomas, George’s friend, warns him in the beginning that things were different now, but George brushes him off. Mortwell’s new business practices might be a bit spoilery, so I’ll just say that it’s gross and dark (he’s a real piece of shit and wonderfully played by Michael Caine).
(An aside: Simone is played by Cathy Tyson. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Tyson and she is stunning. Her voice is so velvety and full of presence. I think it’s a crime that she didn’t become an A-list Hollywood actress. That’s all.)
Being around Simone, George starts to grasp how low-class he is, but it isn’t until he’s helping her that we start to understand George’s vulnerabilities. You can see how uncomfortable he is navigating London’s grimy sex shops trying to find someone for Simone. He looks slightly lost as he talks to different shop owners and sex workers. George is hit hardest when he meets a sex worker that is the same age as his teen daughter. He’s worlds away not only from the lux hotels that Simone’s clients reside in, but also his old life.
George and this movie are not going to be for everyone. George is not a good guy and modern day audiences would find some of his language and actions troubling. My viewpoint is that people are complex and art should reflect this. My main concern is whether the journey shown is compelling or not.
That said, at the end George is changed by his experiences and takes a step closer to being a better father. But more important to me, George’s last monologue shows that he is finally seeing the real Simone.
I would just advise taking the rating seriously because the material is very mature. The movie is neo-noir and has grimy vibes, especially with drug use and underage sex workers. For me Simone and George ground this movie from being over-the-top pulp. I think they are also the reason why this Mona Lisa was chosen to be included in the Criterion Collection.