Running Time: 119 mins
Katherine Watson (Roberts) is an outstanding graduate in Arts History from Oakland State University in California. As her first job she desperately wants to join the faculty of the exclusive Wellesley College in New England. Wellesley enjoys its traditions, especially the one where its graduates become the wives of the boys at Harvard, Princeton or Yale. On their wedding day the girls say goodbye to further education and a career. According to their poise and elocution teacher Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden), an engagement ring on a young woman's finger is considered a bigger prize than a well-rounded education. It's 1953.
From the start Katherine finds Wellesley stuffy. When her long-term, and now bi-coastal, relationship falters, her sense of alienation increases. She throws herself into her art history teaching, challenging the accepted marriage mores of Wellesley, and the arms of one her male colleagues.
Comparisons with Dead Poets Society are inevitable. Alas as successful as director Mike Newell has been with Four Weddings and A Funeral, Pushing Tin and Donnie Brasco, he's not Peter Weir. The film might have Julia Roberts, but it lacks Robin William's humour and, worryingly, a consistent sense of its setting.
Not that Newell's team has not faithfully recreated the look of 1953/54. The sets, costumes and locations are sumptuous. But the character of Katherine Watson does not rung true for the period, and the idiomatic language, especially of the colloquial and coarse variety, refects a much more contemporary sensibility.
There are five main stories and two minor plots, and while they are each interesting enough in themselves, they demand too many set-ups and scene changes. I wanted to settle down into one of them for longer than a minute.
There were also two nagging questions that bugged throughout this film: why, in the first instance, would a free spirited Californian girl like Katherine want to come to such a famously stuck-up place like Wellesley; and why did her, supposedly, happy relationship go bust within five minutes of her arriving there?
This film would be considered by some to be a classic girls film, and it does look at female contraception, abortion and juggling marriage and career. But don't go thinking that it looks at these issues with anything but a superficial glance, or that it charts the beginnings of feminism. Mona Lis Smile is a subversion-free zone, where even the art doesn't seem to challenge anyone.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.