Mona Lisa (1986)

screenshot from Mona Lisa

Directed by: Neil Jordan
Screenwriter(s): Neil Jordan, David Leland
Starring: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Clark Peters, Kate Hardie, Zoë Nathenson, Sammi Davis
Genre: Crime / Drama / Gangster / Thriller
Country: UK
Running time: 1h 44m
Rating: 9 out of 10

George (Hoskins) is released from prison after a seven year stretch to find himself at the tail end of Thatcher’s Britain and in a London which bears little resemblance to that which he left. He has no concept of how far the world of petty crime, in which he previously made his living as an enforcer, has moved into drugs and hardcore porn with a vengeance.

Despite the best efforts of his best friend, Thomas (a well-cast Robbie Coltrane, who gets to utter the immortal line “You can’t find plastic spaghetti just anywhere”), to explain the changes to him, George is certain that he can return to the employ of crime lord Denny Mortwell (Caine), and pick up where he left off. Instead of the high-profile job he was expecting in return for never having betrayed his employers when arrested and tried, he is assigned as driver to a high-price prostitute (Tyson, in an astonishing debut performance).

Despite intial antipathy, they soon develop a close friendship which George mistakes for love. When she asks him to help find her friend, he willingly accepts, unaware that his search will expose him to the most depraved reaches of Mortwell’s criminal empire and push him beyond his limits of his convictions.

Both Hoskins and Jordan (as co-writer and director) are to be commended for presenting George, essentially a thug for hire with typically 1970s prejudices, as a sympathetic lead. By keeping the viewer as much in the dark as George, we too are shocked as revelation is heaped on revelation and all the characters and their motivations are fleshed out. Justifiably garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, Hoskins movingly portrays the confusion and anguish of a man whose life is unravelling.

Although essentially an extended cameo, Caine’s Mortwell is a memorable villian, clinically ruthless and amoral, the evil incarnation of the Thatcherite self-serving, money-obsessed, “I’m alright, Jack” mentality.

Other films also starring Bob Hoskins