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An Ivy League Winner

By Dena Hill

Contributing Writer

Julia Roberts trumps tradition in the hallowed halls of Wellesley
 

Julia Stiles and Kirsten Dunst play wealthy students at Wellesley gradually changed by the influence of their bold new art history teacher (Julia Roberts) in Mona Lisa Smile.

In this fall’s surprise hit, The School of Rock, Joan Cusack plays the repressed headmistress of a stuffy prep school  who meets her match — and liberator — in the outrageous Jack Black, who teaches the privileged little darlings rock ‘n’ roll. In Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts plays basically the same role — if such a thing can be imagined — as Jack Black.

In a smart, gorgeously-photographed tale of a feisty teacher taking on the stuffy establishment and its sometimes even stuffier students,  California girl Katherine Watson (Ms. Roberts) heads up North to teach at the uber-conservative, upper-crust Wellesley College.

As the story begins, it’s 1953, and Katherine, a serious-minded art history teacher, is dismayed to find out that her students, “the smartest women in the country,” are really just seeking the right environment for their real mission: to snag a desirable husband. Katherine herself is an independent-minded career woman who has a serious boyfriend Paul (John Slattery) back home.

Katherine’s sunny, somewhat liberal background immediately puts her at odds not only with her uptight superiors (think of groups of Miss Havishams from Great Expectations in well- designed 1950s clothes), but also with some of her wealthy, privileged students. Katherine is especially heckled at times by the socially minded, prudish Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), who expects her education to be by the book — literally.

The path of growth and self-understanding that Katherine takes parallels the exciting time her students experience. Director Mike Newell does a fine job of chronicling the different social strata between Katherine and her students. For those who never knew the grand balls and social mores of this earlier era, one party in particular is visually stunning. College women actually did once wear beautiful gowns of crinoline and silk, but they were not always happy as they wore them. What distinguishes this movie from others of this kind is that it shows the glamour and glitter, but also the real heartache on the other side. It shows women just beginning to break away from social expectations that we now find impossibly arcane, but that they found all too real.

Despite their attendant wealth, these are young women like any other: they deal with self-doubt and hope for romance. Shown taking classes in setting tables and learning “what to do when your husband’s boss is coming to dinner,” these smart students still don’t know that career options other than marriage exist. (A posted sign about “How to cross and uncross your legs” speaks volumes.)

When Katherine does connect with her students, she does so at the risk of her job. She opens their minds about the stifling roles they are asked to assume. They can be married and pursue rewarding careers as well, she tells one young woman, who rightly tells her that she understands, but chooses marriage and family. Fair enough.

Many elements of this finely crafted period piece ring true. Most notable are excellent performances from Marcia Gay Harden as Katherine’s lovelorn, sweet housemate Nancy and from Ms. Roberts herself who downplays her Julia-ness to avoid standing out as the “prettiest woman” in the room.

What doesn’t ring true is the odd choice to have Ms. Roberts’ fiercely independent character fall in love with a colleague, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), a known campus lothario who regularly sleeps with his students. The film’s individual stories and endearing portrayals outweigh this concern, nonetheless.

Julia Roberts’ fans have another treasure to add to their film list. Everyone else will come away a little wiser about the not-always-happy days of the 1950s.

 

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