Dead Poetesses Society

by Ben Hoyt

It was one of those United Video “$1 Tuesdays,” and my wife and I finally settled on Mona Lisa Smile. We easily got a dollar’s worth out of it, more because it was a great conversation starter than a great film.

In many ways this movie is just a female version of Dead Poets Society. (Not surprisingly, a quick Google told me I’m far from first to notice that.) Set in the 1950s. New teacher comes to high-brow conservative school with new methods, new ideas, new vision. Tension. Relationships with parents strained. Teacher warned to tone it down. And the students love it. So far, so same.

But in many ways it’s quite different. The main difference is that it’s plain not as good. Mona Lisa Smile adds another whole theme, perhaps its main theme: the Fifties versus feminism. Except that it’s more like stereotyped Fifties versus stereotyped feminism. The movie’s a bit too pushy and politically correct to be a film that will last.

The history is a bit time-warped, too. The lead-role teacher (Julia Roberts) lives in the 1950s, but her wardrobe and her feminism, not to mention the Italian teacher who becomes her lover, could almost be from 2003.

The movie wasn’t all bad. Schools and teachers often do suffer from lack of vision, and a passionate teacher can work wonders for students. For one fleeting moment during the movie I even wished I was an inspiring lecturer.

And there’s a good scene where the head girl (Julia Stiles) states eloquently to the teacher that a wife doesn’t mean a dead brain: “I know exactly what I’m doing, and it doesn’t make me any less smart … to you a housewife is someone who has sold her soul … she has no depth, no intellect, no interests.” The teacher almost caves in. Maybe she can tolerate marriage—just this once.

So go ahead: fork out a dollar, watch the movie, and then, if you’re a bit weird like me, go have a Big Discussion about feminism, history in film, and agenda pushing. Or just find a copy of Dead Poets Society.