This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
I find it hard to believe that Wellesley College was as reactionary in the autumn of 1953 as "Mona Lisa Smile" says it is -- but then I wasn't there. Neither were the screenwriters, who reportedly based their screenplay on Hillary Clinton's experience at Wellesley in the early 1960s. The film shows a school which teaches, above all, that a woman's duty is to stand by her man, and if Clinton learned that, she also learned a good deal more. No doubt she had a teacher as inspiring as Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), who trades in the bohemian freedom of Berkeley for a crack at Wellesley's future corporate wives.
This is the kind of school which actually offers classes in deportment, grooming and table setting, and the teacher of those classes, Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden) takes them so seriously that we begin to understand the system that produced Cathy Whitaker, Julianne Moore's showpiece wife in last year's "Far From Heaven." Watson finds her students scornful of her California background (every students makes it a point to be able to identify every slide of every painting in her first lecture), but she counterattacks with a blast of modern art, and there is a scene where she takes them to watch the uncrating of a new work by Jackson Pollock.
Of course the board of trustees is suspicious of Katherine Watson, modern art and everything else that is potentially "subversive," and resistance among the undergraduates is led by Betty (Kirsten Dunst), whose mother is a trustee, whose plans include marrying an upward-bound but morally shifty Harvard man, and whose editorials in the school paper suggest Watson is leading her girls in the direction of communism and, worse, promiscuity. (A school nurse who gives advice on contraception has to leave her job.)
We are pretty sure what the story parabola of "Mona Lisa Smile" will be (the inspiring teacher will overcome adversity to enlighten and guide), but the movie is more observant and thoughtful than we expect. It doesn't just grind out the formula, but seems more like the record of an actual school year than about the needs of the plot. In the delicate dance of audience identification, we get to be both the teacher and her students -- to imagine ourselves as a free spirit in a closed system, and as a student whose life is forever changed by her.