Two School Films: Mona Lisa Smile & The Company
A likeable female cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing skin-deep roles from class brat to class temptress is a main reason to see Mike Newell's "Mona Lisa Smile." Star Julia Roberts' cashmeres fit her perfectly, but alas, the role of Katherine Watson, a 1950s firebrand does not. From modest circumstances and trained at U.C.L.A, she comes east to a prestigious all women's Massachusetts' college to send tremors through the establishment by teaching modern art and encouraging young women to choose careers along with marriage.
Wellesley is portrayed as an all white WASP finishing school. Some alums from that era complain the film doesn't fairly represent their school, but Hollywood's idea of it; others say it is on the mark. Filmed on the Wellesley campus, nicely shown are the details that capture the school's traditions—for instance, the hoop race which supposedly determined who would be the first to marry.
The drama purports to examine the role of women at Wellesley in post war America, when being a wife and homemaker was emphasized as a girl's true calling. In one scene, the teacher of "poise and elocution," (Marcia Gay Harden) teaches students how to set a table and arrange dinner party seating to advance a husband's career.
In the classroom, Katherine first earns the girls' disdain and too quickly penetrates it to earn their esteem. The exception is the upper-crust snob Betty (Dunst) who causes Katherine's colleague and friend, Amanda (Juliet Stevenson) to be fired when in a school newspaper expose she reveals that the progressive faculty nurse is supplying contraceptives to students. But soon Katherine is not only their teacher; she's their confidant and mentor, preaching against conformity.
Katherine doesn't stay here for long, finding it stuffy. But she leaves behind girls she has urged to think and feel and even question why the Mona Lisa is smiling. (117 minutes, PG-13).
Another kind of school, Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, a topnotch dance training ground, is center-stage in Robert Altman's quasi-documentary "The Company." Combining the story of a rising ballerina with a behind the scenes glimpses, it offers sublimely graceful dance vignettes. (112-minutes, PG-13.)#