Bob Hoskins was a deceptively nuanced actor, hiding great depths behind a permanently frayed temper that sees his characters go into flat out rage in seconds. As eye-catching as these explosions prove, they only succeed because he layers in emotion underneath the anger. His penchant for playing unpredictable isolated men out of the right time and place hit its peak in Neil Jordan’s 1986 neo-noir mystery Mona Lisa, where his working class thug gets dragged into a world seedier even than the one he comes from by a high class prostitute.
Quite possibly his finest performance, one in which, even more so than The Long Good Friday, he demonstrates his ability to elevate a run of the mill petty criminal into an achingly lost soul, Hoskins towers above every frame he’s in. Just released from prison for an unspecified crime, he plays George, a man returning to a now unrecognisable London in the mid-80s. Perturbed by an increasingly multi-cultural city, he’s cast adrift, spurned by his ex-partner and cut off from his daughter. With no other option he shacks up in friend Thomas’ (Robbie Coltrane) caravan, and takes a job driving Simone (Cathy Tyson), a tall, sleek, black prostitute around to her assignations in swanky hotels and London manors.
There’s a mystery driving the plot forward, one in which George finds himself seduced into hunting through the filthy backwaters of the sex industry to track down Simone’s friend Cathy (Kate Hardie), but it’s really only a sideshow. This is about George and his search for something he can never quite grasp, and to a lesser extent Simone and her efforts to hold onto dignity. They make for a fascinating pairing, both trapped in different ways, both increasingly reliant on each other and both unable to ever truly say what they want.
Jordan establishes George’s character brilliantly in the opening 20 minutes. Turning up at his old house, an attempt to give flowers to his daughter ends in a violent confrontation that at once shows his uncontrollable temper and childish naivety. He never loses either, capable in a scrap but a blundering fool in social situations. With Simone, he constantly asks inadvertently crude questions, drops in offensive racial epithets, and dresses like he’s on a drunken package holiday.
Simone is a complete contrast, a svelte woman with an alluring sense of class and the ability to judge every social situation. She starts to mould George into a more respectable colleague, one who doesn’t look so out of place waiting for her in five star hotels. Using all her charm, she also talks him into a squalid hunt through peep shows and brothels for her friend. She knows he’s falling for her, and with the brush of a hand on his shoulder and the occasional lingering glance, she abuses this. It’s highly likely he knows too, but stuck in this midnight world, she’s the only thing anchoring him while he tries to rebuild a relationship with his daughter.
Alongside the compelling central pairing Jordan and co-writer David Leland create, there are a number of nice touches to round out this hidden London. On his peep show odyssey, George stumbles across a man cleaning out the booths with disinfectant, while the King’s Cross presented here is a hellish rabbit warren of vice, one in which a man like George, with his inherent sense of decency, is not fully equipped to navigate. There’s even an effective switch into thriller mode near the end as the search starts to bear fruit, pitting George up against Michael Caine’s gangster Mortwell. It leads to a slick, if slightly too neat ending and a couple of thrilling scenes, particularly a chase in an old style cage lift.
Nearly three decades on, Mona Lisa has aged extremely well, a reminder that the British film industry can be creative when it wants, and an enduring testament to the unlikely star power of Bob Hoskins. He may be gone, but he’s not forgotten.
Mona Lisa is released on Blu-ray on 6th July. Extras include audio commentary by Neil Jordan and Bob Hoskins, and interviews with Jordan, David Leland and Stephen Woolley.
Director: Neil Jordan
Writers: Neil Jordan (screenplay), David Leland (screenplay)
Stars: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine
Runtime: 104 mins