When Bob Hoskins announced his retirement from acting last year, as he has contracted Parkinson’s Disease, George in Mona Lisa was one of the roles that I saw most highly recommended out of his entire career. And indeed, he gives a bruisingly honest performance in this quietly original and surprisingly emotional film.
George, newly released from jail, is handed a job by mob boss Mortwell (Michael Caine) that he’s not only ill-suited for, but that offends him: he’s to be a driver for Simone (Cathy Tyson), a high-class prostitute who is also black, and has plenty of secrets besides. Though George initially has no respect for Simone, the two grow to rely upon each other, especially after she sends him on a search through London’s scungy, neon-lit streets and clubs in search of a friend she’s lost.
Tyson makes Simone an unforgettable figure, ever a mystery, hanging onto her hard-earned dignity where she can. Hoskins’ George is funny in his gaucheness, endearing in his naivety, and touching in his loneliness, all of which make his capacity for explosive violence only more terrifying. Caine plays dangerous and cold without trying to take over the film, and Robbie Coltrane is also solid as Thomas, a friend of George.
This film is definitely filtered through George’s perspective, which keeps it from properly focusing on the lives of female sex workers – but his inability to understand them is precisely its point.
Mona Lisa often feels quirky in unobtrusive ways, which gives it a uniqueness even though it is part of a well-trodden genre. It is full of humour even though it can be grim, devastating even. Above all, it’s one to hold up against other British crime dramas to damn them for their lack of heart.