Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)

Sometimes there are movies that leave you thinking about different interpretations over and over again. Yesterday evening, we watched one of them, Neil Jordan‘s Mona Lisa from 1986.


Described as classy kitsch by the New York Times, it features a surprisingly strong cast: Bob Hoskins as George, the tough but basically goodhearted British mob flunky, Cathy Tyson as Simone, the high class call girl with some queer corners, Robbie Coltrane as Thomas, George’s pal and endless story teller, and the great Michael Caine as Mortwell, the cooly vicious chief of a gang of London pimps and blackmailers.

George just came out of prison and trying to find its way back into life. He ends up as driver of the high class prostitute Simone and between the two some strange kind of romance. He is asked by Simone to search for an old friend of her, and this quest brings him deep into the heart of a rotten society, with child pornography, SM games, drugs and the like. The movie ends with a showdown and the split of the two.

On the surface a simple romance set in the British underworld of the 80ies, and thus it would be prone to be forgotten quickly. But there are some quirks that somehow grasp the audience (or at least me), and don’t let you go. For one, the movie does not play the erotic card at all. No sex scenes, not even remotely. It develops the relation between George and Simone without useless digressions.

Then there are these strange appearances of animals … right after coming out of prison, George visits wants to visit his wife and daughter, but got rejected by the wife. Here something strange happens: He walks into a pet shop and buys a white rabbit. This he hands over to Mortwell, the boss, and after this the rabbit is not seen till the very final showdown.

In the discussion on the IMDb people suggest that the rabbit means “to talk” in the Cockney slang used throughout the movie. This is an association that comes up in several places. But I happen to disagree, for me the whole story with Simone is just a “story in the story”, clearly marked off by the rabbit’s appearance. Here are some of the points I find supporting:

  • The rabbit as reference to Alice in Wonderland, where it also is a sign of the “other-world”, does not appear during the any of the scenes until the very end, before everything slips back to normality
  • George and Thomas are discussing permanently about books and stories they make up, and try to give logical reason to tie up the ends. It seems that the story in-between is just one instance of it.
  • The characters of the imaginary world never intersect in the few scenes where he is with his daughter, i.e., in the real world
  • There is an appearance of a horse next to a rest house on a street. Completely unmotivated, but still it draws George’s attention. Especially since the main story George and Thomas are discussing all the time is about a horse. Here the real world (story telling about horse) seems to influence the imaginary world.
  • After the showdown (I want tell what it is), there is a switch of an instance and everything is back to normal. Given the circumstances of the showdown, this is very unlikely.
  • In the real world, Thomas is a mechanic, like George, but in the imaginary world he also deals with very strange (and illegal/stolen) objects: statues of Jesus lit from inside, plates of spaghetti with sauce in plastic, half-way lifted from the plate.
  • London might have been bad n the 80ies, but the impression created here looks a bit overdoing

These reasons might not be convincing, but at least this is my interpretation. But at the end, what the movie tries to criticize, the bleak underworld of prostitution, including child abuse etc, remains the same. And even worse, nothing has changed since the 80ies, only that the back room dealing was replaced by Internet, but the abuse is still here.

It might not be one of the greatest movies in the history, and the above mentioned NYTimes review is quite negative, but still, I enjoyed it in the sense that I couldn’t stop watching it.

If you watch it, please let me know your interpretation!

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