The next post will be or before Friday July 6th
MONA LISA AND BOB HOSKINS
If you are British, and even if you are not, there is a fair chance you have seen the 1986 movie Mona Lisa starring Bob Hoskins (1942-2014) at least half a dozen times. Directed by prizewinning Irish author and filmmaker Neil Jordan (born 1950) it is always being shown on TV and in the old days was a gratis DVD in the Sunday Times. Jordan has made some unarguable masterpieces, including 3 political thrillers: namely the 1982 Angel set by the Northern Irish seaside starring Stephen Rea; then, also with Rea and Forest Whitaker as an innocent black soldier, The Crying Game (1992), and finally the 1996 biographical movie Michael Collins featuring Liam Neeson. Also first class was The End of the Affair (1999), an adaptation of the Graham Greene, novel, with suave and cryptic Ralph Fiennes and decorous and conscience stricken Julianne Moore on top form. However, Jordan has also made two execrable duds in the shape of the misfiring ghostly comedy High Spirits (1988) with Peter O’Toole, and even worse the unwatchable 2005 adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel Breakfast on Pluto, which as far as I can remember has talking sparrows in it.
Mona Lisa despite the awards and acclaim it received, is not a masterpiece, neither I am glad to say, is it anywhere near being a dud. It has many fine things in it, including a bravura performance from Bob Hoskins playing middle aged Londoner George, recently out of a 7 year prison sentence and now driver for a high class and beautiful black call girl called Simone, under the aegis of Soho master crook Denny, a man so sleazy and appalling you want to hit him as soon as he is on the screen. Denny is played immaculately by Michael Caine (born 1933) who adopts his customary oblique Cockney rhetoric in playing the part, and takes nil responsibility for letting George take the rap 7 years earlier. George is both frightened of and contemptuous of Denny, and at the start of the film enters his club and leaves a live white rabbit to be given to Denny as indication of his boss’s cowardice. Before that and just out of jail he goes to visit his teenage daughter Jeannie (Zoe Nathenson born 1969, who now runs her own film school) who is living with his estranged wife. He bears flowers and wears a tidy white suit, but the screaming mother kicks him out and orders Jeannie to get in the house. George reacts by flinging a full dustbin at the door and then doing the same at the gawping amused neighbours, the majority of them black. He is rescued from retribution by his old mate Thomas, played by Robbie Coltrane (born 1950) who is a kind of dramatic foil to the horrible gangster underworld, as he is a decent man living alone in a shack of a garage with his ramshackle bed in among all the ramshackle cars. Coltrane does his usual dry unfoolable persona, but his character and Hoskins’ relationship with him are I would say the weakest thing in the film. He is given 2 quirky attributes which are meant to be funny, but in my view are not, more like facetious. One is making avant garde sculptures in his garage out of spaghetti and the other is retailing the mad labyrinthine plots of mad thrillers where characters like dwarves and even horses turn out to be the villains. Hoskins reads all these recommended books and the two of them spend far too much time swapping opinions about these whimsical and tedious artefacts. Robbie Coltrane is a gifted and very successful actor but he played the same autopilot facetious one liner part in his relationship with Emma Thompson in the otherwise excellent TV rockband drama Tutti Frutti which interestingly was made about the same time (1987) as Mona Lisa.
George’s relationship with Simone (Cathy Tyson, born 1965 and best known from the ITV series Band of Gold) is far more nuanced and convincing, and is frequently very touching. She is a high-class prostitute for rich always elderly clients with special tastes, and the meetings are usually in plush hotels where the snooty head waiter is also a class of discreet custodial pimp. In one enjoyable scene George storms in on Simone when she is long delayed, only to find an old man in hideous white underwear who has her in her bra and knickers tied up and gagged on the bed. George throws him out of the room, unties the angry Simone, who stands of course to lose money, and then as they run out of the hotel he batters the head waiter whilst Simone flings mace in the lackey’s eyes, her trusted device against all aggressive males. By this stage, she and her driver are on relatively amiable terms, but to start with she mocks him for his terrible dress sense and gives George a wad of money to buy something decent. He duly purchases a reasonable jacket, but to her disgust goes for the maddest Waikiki shirt in the world. She scorns his stupidity and he angrily retorts that he is cheap, and she must accept that, but nonetheless the two of them gradually develop a convincing and moving tenderness. Simone thoughtfully has a liveried waiter take refreshments out to the car where George is waiting for her, and George demonstrates his nascent feelings by telling her that for him, Simone is emphatically a lady, not a tart. However, there is a twist and a subtext, inasmuch as Simone was once not so elevated but was working the London streets on the nightmarish thoroughfare near King’s Cross, mostly peopled by young prostitutes with severe drug addictions. She had a friend among them she has lost touch with, who is still only in her teens, a blond-haired waif called Cathy (played by Kate Hardie, born 1969 who is daughter of the TV comedian Bill Oddie). Simone commissions George to try and find her, and together they trawl King’s Cross, mistaking various girls for Cathy, and there is an excellent scene where an aggressive and loathsome young pimp in a jaunty trilby hat has his face battered on the wound down car window by no nonsense George. Male violence is predictably a constant motif in the film, and as George sets about detective style to track down Cathy on his own, he takes a wrong lead and ends up in some seedy brothel where he poses as a customer interested in blond underage girls, one of whom has a face covered in ugly bruises. George sits on her bed and grills her about her identity, but she urges him in a babyfied voice to make love to her, or she will be beaten up for not doing her job. Later he takes her out for an ice cream in an egg and chip café and again in her reduced state she babbles pathetic baby talk, and likewise when George eventually finds the real Cathy, she not only whines like a deprived infant but can eat only ice cream, a convincing dietary detail when it comes to women with severe drug addictions.
George had eventually tracked down Cathy in a massive, empty London church where she is liaising with her black pimp Anderson, a Denny employee played by star US actor Clarke Peters (born 1952) familiar from The Wire. They meet in the church, because of course it is the one place where no one ever goes, and eventually Hoskins follows them to a crumbling mansion owned by Denny, who is busy parading around in a supervisory role in an impeccable dinner jacket. There in an adjacent boudoir, Cathy has to give her body to a disturbing old man in a dressing gown who has an array of nasty implements he will employ for rear penetration of the underage girl. George sees all this by reflection in a purpose built voyeuristic mirror, whereupon incensed he bursts in to steal the girl, and ultimately takes her down to Brighton where Simone has just eloped.
The film accelerates to compelling pursuit and panic mode, as come to think of it do most films set in Brighton, and when George has pale and fragile Cathy safely in a smart hotel, she discloses that Simone is not just any old friend but a very special one. Later he spots the two of them lying on a bed as if they are lifelong lovers, and he takes Simone on a walk along the pier to pour his heart out. There are 2 admirably powerful scenes in the film, where one of them is justifiably incensed and the other is as it were exposed and stricken. The first is when George discovers a porn video of Simone giving fellatio to a faceless black man, confronts her with it, and she beats him across the face with a belt in her anger and her shame. Hoskins shows his tears and humiliation with incredible poignance and likewise he unleashes his anguished rage now, for as he sees it he has ‘risked everything, including his life, for two dykes’. To emphasise the bilious black comedy, as he sees it, he promptly purchases two pairs of ludicrous ornamented sunglasses with plastic frames, such as little kids would wear. With the pair of them looking like partying buffoons, he accuses her of callously mocking his feelings and of risking his neck. However, he is stopped half way through his excoriation, as 3 of Denny’s London heavies have turned up, including Cathy’s minder, Anderson. The pair of them manage to race back to the hotel, where as final irony, with Cathy still fast asleep, Denny is sat calmly on an armchair caressing the white rabbit that was given him as an emblem of his cowardice. Caine stands up and in his usual spry hectoring tone, starts slapping Simone brutally on the face. At which point, with a precautionary gun earlier provided by George, she shoots him dead, and he is splayed across the wall covered in blood, the little white rabbit meanwhile sniffing innocently nearby. She also blasts and kills Anderson and all the rest of the heavies. But the amiable conclusion is inexplicable as far as I can see, for we learn no more about Simone and Cathy, but George returns to London and joyfully resumes a kind of wholesome family life with daughter Jeannie, even down to Robbie Coltrane lending her an avuncular arm as she is sandwiched happily between him and her Dad.
I am still baffled why all 3 of them, the two gay lovers and George, weren’t quickly tracked down by the police and put away for decades, but that aside, this is still a fine and engaging movie with a haunting soundtrack, and it is worth rewatching at least once a year for ever more.