A married woman realizes how unhappy her marriage really is, and that her life needs to go in a different direction. After a painful divorce, she takes off on a round-the-world journey to "find herself".
Katherine Ann Watson has accepted a position teaching art history at the prestigious Wellesley College. Watson is a very modern woman, particularly for the 1950s, and has a passion not only for art but for her students. For the most part, the students all seem to be biding their time, waiting to find the right man to marry. The students are all very bright and Watson feels they are not reaching their potential. Altough a strong bond is formed between teacher and student, Watson's views are incompatible with the dominant culture of the college. Written by
Krysten Ritter and Lily Rabe, now both well known leading actresses, appear in numerous scenes of the film as extras - playing students in the art history class. See more »
The first day of art history class, Katherine Watson brings in two black slide cases. When is class is over, she leaves with one red slide case. See more »
All her life, she had wanted to teach at Wellesley College. So, when a position opened in the Art History department, she pursued it single-mindedly until she was hired. It was whispered that Katherine Watson, a first-year teacher from Oakland State, made up in brains what she lacked in pedigree. Which was why this bohemian from California was on her way to the most conservative college in the nation.
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The end credits for the prominent cast and crew are set in front of vintage footage and advertisements showing women in the 1940s and 50s. See more »
A mixed bag feel good nostalgia movie with forced and familiar strains about 1950s sexism in the US
Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
I had no idea the theme of this movie but I teach art history and the main opening scene is a true nightmare for an art history teacher--the precocious students knew everything before the teacher said anything, and then they sweetly got up and went to study hall because, of course, they might actually learn something there.
This is 1953 at a rich private and elite college for girls (a real one--it's called Wellesley). The writing is a little strained and forcing some of the sexist themes of the 1950s on the audience. So even the stellar cast--Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal--can't give this the sincerity it needs. But the period looks terrific, the music and the dresses are fine, so the whole atmosphere frankly becomes the compelling center of the movie.
Not that the plot isn't worthwhile. Roberts is a "progressive" art teacher who for some reason has been hired at this ultra-conservative place. She automatically is lost at sea, but gradually wins over her students with such daring subjects as Van Gogh, who is presented as radical somehow, though conservative enough to become paint by numbers, too. The movie is filled with these conflicts of what we think of as normal modern art (an overdone scene with Jackson Pollack is one example) and with the proper world these women are really supposed to inhabit.
And it's true, lots of women were encouraged to be housewives even at good colleges. They went to get their degree, but also their Mrs., as they used to say. And then with the best credentials in the world they would become housewives. Happily. Mostly.
There is a rivalry right away between Roberts and a goody-goody Dunst, who is pretty good at being an evil brat, and a sensuous modern student played by Gyllenhaal, who wants the same man Roberts seems to want. Seems to. The romances are not very vivid, the housewifery is canned and uncomplicated (almost drawn from the magazine ads that they keep showing in lectures on a big screen), and the characters themselves are simplified to the point of simplicity. Even Roberts, who is supposed to be discovering her mixed up feelings about art and life on the east coast, is thinly drawn and barely fleshed out.
Of course, movies succeed on some level with stereotypes and this one does, too, so by the end we love all the feel good happiness even as we know it's ludicrous and manipulative. Such are the movies. This could have been a better movie with the same basic story but lots better writing and directing. The ambition was kept in check, and so the movie does the minimum here, and not always so badly if the minimum will do.
On a final note, there are a number of women behind the scenes here (though not the director or writers, sadly): music, art direction, set decoration, and casting. And of course nearly all of the cast.
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