In the Revolution Studios 2003 movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” Julia Roberts is Katherine Anne Watson, an idealistic and enthusiastic art professor from California who has just landed a dream job teaching at Wellesley College in the early nineteen fifties, where she hopes to make a difference and inspire her young female students on to great heights. Things at the uptight, ultra-conservative institution are not quite what she had expected them to be, however, and the majority of her students (at least the ones we meet on screen) seem to be far more focused on getting married than on actually graduating let alone pursuing any type of career outside of motherhood.
On the first day of her art history class Watson discovers that her students have already thoroughly learned their entire textbook inside and out when they rather arrogantly begin to disrupt her slide lecture identifying every piece of artwork in her presentation and giving the corresponding attributes and histories of each. She seems momentarily intimidated in the situation and is thrown off her game but quickly bounces back and starts stirring things up on campus with her non-traditional classroom approach and pro-feminist ideas.
Her alternative approach soon begins winning over her pupils and in a short time her class becomes highly popular with the rest of student population. Unfortunately, her unconventional tactics are frowned upon by the administration as is her developing friendship with a male faculty member.
It is a convincing portrayal of life in the fifties and the then seemingly limited roles of women in American society, even in privileged circles, and the stigmas associated with free-thinking and individualism. Watson is out of place at Wellesley with almost no friends and an ever diminishing sense of purpose despite her efforts to liberate the thinking of her students.
The movie is well worth seeing merely for the performances of the individual players but it is much more than one hundred and nineteen minutes of coming-of-age-finding-oneself-drama. This is an important film that looks into a turning point moment for a group of women who for the most part have previously defined themselves solely based on their impending futures as wives and mothers while catering to the expectations of others around them.
The film, directed by Mike Newell, also stars actresses Kirsten Dunst, Julia Styles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marcia Gay Harden as Watson’s Wellesley students.