Mona Lisa Smile dir. Mike Newell

Opens Fri Dec 19.

There is an extraordinary scene about two-thirds of the way through Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile, an emotionally brutal few moments in which the perilously cracked veneer blocking the anger within Kirsten Dunst's privileged and viperous Wellesley girl, Betty Warren, splinters away, releasing a storm of cruel, outward criticism in footage that aches with the character's underlying self-hatred. Rather than strike back defensibly, however, Warren's classmate, Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), wordlessly wraps her arms around the shaking, still screaming girl, and by sheer force of empathy directs the torrent to cease.

This scene is in the tradition of Newell's 1992 film Enchanted April, and it helps demonstrate the director's canny awareness of the secret language spoken silently among women. Outwardly, these characters of pre-liberated eras (Enchanted April takes place in the 1930s, Mona Lisa Smile in 1953) present faces of cool contentment for those whom they strive to impress. However, what may seem like a face devoid of any expression at all could, if circumstance called for it, belie a barely perceptible, deliberate flatness embedded deep within the eyes. If that determined flatness is locked upon by another woman's discreet gaze, the two will condense volumes of tired irritation down to a momentary, otherwise unnoticed flick of the eye. There was a delicious feast to be had in Enchanted April with these boldly pointed but silent glances (especially between a brusque Joan Plowright and a sanguine Polly Walker), and Mona Lisa Smile is no less fulfilling.

Presumably the film's principal role is that of Julia Roberts, whose character Katherine Watson struggles to break down the rigid confines that the school's students accept for themselves (and whose trademark honk of a laugh provides the only bad judgment to be found on Newell's part). A foreword-thinking UCLA graduate teaching the concept of art to the proudly all-girls student body, Katherine quickly becomes frustrated with the eager willingness of "the brightest students in the country" to graduate holding degrees in political science--or, as in the case of Joan Brandwyn (a bland performance by Julia Stiles), prelaw--and then settle immediately and permanently into marriage, the only thinkable career a Wellesley girl should strive for. "I thought I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives!" spits Roberts when she grows increasingly incensed, unable to understand the roles these bright minds have chosen for themselves.

Roberts' performance, though, takes a backseat to those of Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The latter's character has an outward façade of bubbling abandon and bravado (she's had an affair with the school's randy language professor, played with plenty of smarm by Dominic West) that hardly conceals her robust vulnerability. And Dunst, having perfected the iciness she portrayed so precociously as a 12-year-old in Interview with a Vampire, nails the tremulous energy her character requires to transcend parody; Betty's ugly "honesty" (she writes peevish opinion pieces for the school newspaper) is an excuse for her to be a bitch without suffering the consequences or the damage a label like that might prove to her desirability as a wife.

For all Newell says on screen in Mona Lisa Smile, he also says a lot with what he chooses to leave off: Though there is much footage of guests arriving and of the lavish reception when Kirsten Dunst marries, no actual nuptials are shown. The vows are meaningless, a truth Newell delivers without any unnecessary language. And in keeping with the propriety Wellesley represents, there are no sex scenes despite the no-strings relationships in which Gyllenhaal's and Roberts' characters freely engage.

In one of the moments that gives the film its name, Roberts presents the Mona Lisa and asks her students, "Is it any good?" instructing the girls to wonder if the smiling woman (and they, themselves) is indeed happy, while also forcing them to venture an original opinion on a question that has no right or wrong answer. The modern scientific theory suggesting that limitations of the human eye cause the painting's smile to disappear when looked at directly can certainly be applied to the false contentment Mona Lisa Smile's characters are so used to portraying: Direct vision is excellent at picking up detail, but rarely does it notice shadows.

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