In the production notes to accompany its Cannes Film Festival launch, writer-director Neil Jordan enigmatically introduced his latest work as ‘a film about a song. about a painting, about a woman; about men, and the images they make of women, the stories they need to tell themselves, to keep them mystic. unfathomable, anything but real.‘
Mona Lisa is about sexual politics. about power and abuse, illusion and reality, human vulnerability and the cold, harsh face of the world. Set amidst the neon-winking underbelly of London‘s seamier streets, it revolves around the painful learning experiences of Bob Hoskins‘ little—boy-lost. ex-con George. Lonely and unloved, adrift in the squalor of the contemporary big city. George is one of life‘s losers; a naive, dumb animal with the grace of a hipp0potamus and the dress sense of a colour-blind Martian. Employed as a chauffeur to a high-class prostitute he eagerly undertakes the search for her missing friend and thus embarks on a journey into a heart of darkness that leaves him a sadder but wiser man.
An odyssey ofexcon'ating raw
, emotions; poetic. touching and
big-hearted, Mona Lisa is the most affecting British film in recent memory and further emphasises Jordan‘s position as one of the most talented and assured young filmmakers in the world. His first feature, Ange/(1982), was a bold and mesmerising thriller set in Northern Ireland. while Company of Wolves (1984) imaginatively refined Little Red Riding Hood into a comforting fable of sexual awakening. The man makes exceedingly good and original films.
Mona Lisa continues Jordan‘s ongoing relationship with Palace films and was initiated during their previous collaboration on Company of Wolves, as he explained in Cannes. ‘Company ofWolves involved a lot ofspecial effects; a polystyrene forest in a studio. crazy animals, medieval villagers, and the thought of then doing a film with actors in real locations was tempting. I wanted to do something that emphasised character and pure emotion with a simple storyline. I knew London as a foreigner and felt there had been a lot of films made there but very few that had used it in an atmospheric way. It‘s a dream world and I was looking for something that gave meaning to the dream-world.‘
The specific inspiration for Mona Lisa came from a story that Jordan read in a newspaper. Claiming that England and its gutter press is ‘a great place for sexual scandal‘, Jordan noted one tabloid report of a criminal on trial for assault who had claimed to be protecting prostitutes from a gang of pimps and dope dealers. The man had criticised the sordid extremes of modern day criminality and lamented, almost nostalgically, the passing of honourable crime. Jordan picked up on this to create the character of George; a man with a similarly old-fashioned viewpoint. David Leland, the writer of television‘s
Allan Hunter talks to the stars of Cannes prize-winner, Mona Lisa.
r I. O ﬂ
Made in Britain. was approached to ! write the first draft ofthe script. Jordan reworked the material but needed to cast the central character before feeling able to proceed with the project. Sean Connery was allegedly in mind at a very early stage in the proceedings but. with the choice of Bob Hoskins. the soul of Mona Lisa came into sharp focus. i Hoskins is no stranger to ' portraying the denizens ofthe underworld. Who can obliterate memories of his pugnacious Harry Shand in The Long Good Friday (1980) or his almost single-handed enlivening of The Cotton Club (1984) as owner Owney Madden? George, however, is a complete departure and Hoskins‘ unflinchineg honest reading of the man is never less than inspired. ‘George is basically a fool, a very simple man who lives on his emotions and feelings: a man with his heart on his sleeve,‘ Hoskins explains. ‘The thing that appealed to me is that he is so ordinary. He‘s not a superman, just an ordinary guy with not a lot of brains, who has a sense of decency. To turn someone like that, instead oflike James Bond, into the hero of a film is wonderful.’ Normally someone who undertakes extensive research prior to filming, Hoskins willingly acceded to Jordan‘s view that the core of the characters would emerge from within the experiences of the actors. Consequently, the filming was a frequently intense and hurtful process as Hoskins used personal memories and intimate personal recollections to reflect the emotional chaos of George’s quest. ‘The one
thing I did was take my daughter to
the zoo and look at all the caged birds there. George is a free spirit trapped in a similar way by his own naivety and limitations. I have the same sense of decency as George but I’m not as naive. lam romantic. yes. I‘m a sucker for the Nat King Cole songs. I met a 12 year old drug addict and I have a daughter who is thirteen. So, quite a lot ofit was
difficult in letting the emotions ﬂow.‘
Casting the other characters around Hoskins was not always an easy process but Jordan was fortunate in finding Cathy Tyson to play Simone, the object of George‘s misplaced affections. Born in Surrey but raised in Liverpool. Tyson had worked in community theatre, the Liverpool Everyman and the Royal Shakespeare Company. At a London press conference she comes across as a keenly intelligent, sharp-witted and thoughtful woman who evidently relishes the professional challenges of her film debut. She describes filming as ‘like taking a big leap into a deep swimming pool. I couldn‘t take my eyes offthe camera and just wanted to take it to bits.
Shc researched her role of a ‘tall. skinny tart‘ by meeting members of the All-Women Co-operative Peep Show but, like Hoskins. was encouraged to trawl through her private emotions. ‘Bob was available twenty four hours a day. literally, if I wanted to talk about the characters or the relationship between them. Sometimes it‘s like a mother-daughter relationship. sometimes a father-daughter. The notion of families was important. Neil was a magician. We‘d do a lot of
talking with him rather than
GIRL IN THE PICTURE
rehearsing and he‘s willing to listen to any suggestion. The working relationship was fantastic.‘
Other cast members include a very fine Robbie Coltrane as George‘s understanding best friend and the always impeccable Michael Caine as a reptilian underworld boss who has very easily accommodated himself to the requirements ofchanging times and differing moral codes. Hoskins jokingly refers to his close friend as Sir Michael Caine and admires him l as a ‘proper craftsman‘. Caine accepted the role because of his esteem for Hoskins and a desire to § work withJordan. His directoris i particularly gratified to have brought . the international star back to Britain, and a grass roots character. i
the film has been compared to Caine’s Get Carter, perhaps includes a reference to Graham Greene via an 3 explosive climax in Brighton and has most readily been likened to Taxi i Driver. a parallel everyone g concerned dismisses. Taxi Driver uses violence as a catharsis and delusion of incipient madness. Mona Lisa finds redemption in the power of love. In Cannes the film was applauded as an original. winning Hoskins a richly deserved Best Actor ‘ Award. the first to a Briton in some twenty years. With becoming immodesty Hoskins reckons that the film represents ‘some of the best work I‘ve ever done. I feel that if this doesn‘t leave people in tears, fuck ‘em!’
Hoskins emerged as one of the true stars of this year‘s Cannes Festival, evidently enjoying his first ever visit to the South ofFrance. Several months later he reflects that he felt like the Queen Mum. Ruefully he also believes that had Cathy Tyson been able to attend she would have been named Best Actress. Some compensation. at least, is their joint recognition at the Seattle Film Festival and Mona Lisa’s notable critical and commercial success in America.
Hoskins, now a hotter property than ever, is choosing his future carefully. He recently rejected the role of Al Capone in Brian De Palma‘s big screen version of The Untouchables (‘I could wind up playing gangsters for the rest of my life!‘) His replacement is Robert De Niro. He is currently filming Jack Higgins‘ A Prayerfor the Dying in London with Mickey Rourke and Alan Bates. Next year. he will direct a film from his own screenplay.
Cathy Tyson would like to be offered a really good comedy and hopes to become a proficient linguist to enable her to perform pieces in their native tongue and to work in Europe.
Neil Jordan. meanwhile, is preparing two projects to be made in Ireland - Ghos! Tours. a comedy
concerning American tourists in search ofthe supernatural, and Evergreen, a long-planned biography ofthe Irish patriot
Michael Collins who was
assassinated in 1922. Both are eagerly awaited.
Mona Lisa opens a! the Odeons Edinburgh and Glasgow on October 3.
The List 3 ~ 16 October 5