As entertainment, "Mona Lisa Smile" has its strong points. After all, it features some of some of today's best actresses - Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden. It has the look of the 1950s, which makes it a handsome period piece. The movie's central problems are its unsuccessful attempts to convey the real feeling of the period and its failure to create any truly memorable characters [the script's fault more than the performers']. While it wants to be seen as a historically accurate portrait of upper-middle class society fifty years ago, it winds being no more than an entertaining soap opera. [For a more astute vision of the period, watch the vastly superior "Far From Heaven" . For a searing portrait of a teacher in an all girls' school, check out 1969's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie".]
Katherine Watson [Roberts], a recent UC Berkeley graduate, lands a job at Wellesley College, a prestigious East Coast women's college, as an art history teacher. She is impressed by her students' eagerness to learn, but appalled that, despite their academic excellence, their main ambition is to marry well. She begins a fairly benign campaign to get these women to realize that there might be other ambitions in life worth pursing. Her efforts make the college's president and its board of trustees uncomfortable to the point that her job is in danger. The students' responses range from acceptance to outright hostility.
The always delightful Roberts is miscast here. She is a joy to watch and gives one of her most mature performances, yet she comes off as an early 21st Century woman sent to the mid-20th Century to show these girls what the future will be like. This interpretation gives her character a certain smugness.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Gyllenhaal nearly steals the movies as Giselle, a beautiful Jewish student, the only one who seems destined to be on the forefront of women's lib in years to come.