I have a long relationship with the film Mona Lisa (Jordan, 1986) which I believe to be Neil Jordan’s masterpiece. It was my favourite film as a teenager; I watched it many times, each time observing Bob Hoskins’ moving performance as George, a conman fresh out of prison for an unknown crime he did not commit in order to protect his boss Mortwell (Michael Caine). Jordan has said that he wanted the film’s London setting to have a feel of Scorsese’s hellish New York of Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) and Melville’s jungle maze vision of Paris in La Samourai (Melville, 1967). The protagonist George is a descent man, a Travis Bickle of the heart if there is such a person. George is given the job of chauffeuring prostitute Simone (the tight lipped and enigmatic Cathy Tyson, who was only 20 at the time of filming in 1985). George’s hands look worn, maybe he did a lot of hard labour in prison, these worn hands care deeply for the women in the film, he is in a sense a surrogate father for them.
Having spent ten years of watching this film numerous times this was the first time I really noticed the beautiful light in it, the opening sequence of George alone on a park bench with a heavenly blaze on a morning dawn is an obvious one with George getting up to walk away into a wilderness like in a western. George and May’s (Sammi Davies) second encounter on a bridge in King’s Cross with the sun blazing in the background is a reminder of Jordan’s love of fairy tales. The contrast of the hellish darkness of the London night (especially as the George car drives away from King’s Cross after beating a pimp which is reminiscent of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Greenaway, 1989)) is a testament to Jordan’s gift as a filmmaker. The gift of contrasting day into night in a film is argued by Adrian Martin and Michel Chion as a way to tell the greatest of directors.
There is also an underlining humour in the film headed by George’s friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane) who lives in a caravan in an abandoned warehouse on the docks (a beautiful creative touch reminiscent of Richard Widmark’s dockland shack in Pickup on South Street (Fuller, 1953)). Thomas sells bizarre plastic ornaments like spaghetti in a bowl and he talks endlessly with George in detective story metaphors. Mona Lisa is a neo-noir film if there ever was one; many of its scenes have an edge or feel of a 1940s black and white noir riddled with greed, exploitation and betrayal, think of Night and the City (Dassin, 1950). George’s eventual meeting with Mortwell in a seedy nightclub is a one for the 80s time capsule, Caine’s light blue shirt and his saying ‘the business is different but the rules are still the same’.
Simone asks George to find a young prostitute called Cathy (Kate Hardie) which leads him on an eye opening tour of the deep exploitation and depression of prostitution. George’s odyssey is scored by Genesis’ pop favourite ‘In Too Deep’, ‘All the time I was searching, nowhere to run to, it started me thinking…’. Hoskins’ energy in the role is so immediate; each reaction shot is jarred with either deep worry, confusion or anger in a world that George has come too late to in the seven years he has been in prison. If you have seen Jordan’s other films, the ending in Brighton is inevitable, a sort of eulogy of his dramatist stamp, it is as David Cronenberg would call his own inevitable scenarios and endings, ‘apocalyptic dramatics’.