Picks and Pans Review: Mona Lisa

UPDATED 06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

Balding, bug-eyed and built like a bull terrier, Bob Hoskins may be the most unlikely movie star material since the young Jimmy Cagney. But this London stage sensation (True West, Guys and Dolls) makes his own rules. His film send-off as a mobster in 1980's British import The Long Good Friday earned him cult status, and since then he's been stealing Yank flicks (Cotton Club, Sweet Liberty) in second-fiddle parts. But like the man said, you ain't seen nothin' yet. In Mona Lisa, a stinging drama for which he just won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, Hoskins makes the most of a once-in-a-lifetime role. He plays an ex-con, a petty thief who took the rap for his gangland boss (a sleazy Michael Caine) and now expects some reward. Instead, he gets abuse. His wife won't let him near their home, and Caine palms off a demeaning job on him: driving a high-priced black prostitute (Cathy Tyson) on her rounds. At first Tyson is appalled by this unsightly bantam cock with a loud mouth and a wardrobe to match. So she sets about transforming him with elegant clothing, lessons in etiquette and later, her trust. The striking Tyson (she's the 20-year-old niece of actress Cicely) makes a dazzling debut, finding both the shrewd promoter and scared child in this haughty hooker. Naturally, Hoskins falls hard. She is his Mona Lisa, the mysterious beauty of the Nat King Cole song he constantly plays. The song (an Oscar-winning 1950 standard) is a key to his character—he's a bruised romantic who wants to believe in happy endings. There aren't any, of course. Though he carts Tyson around like a prom date, he can't shut his eyes forever to what she does upstairs while he waits in the car. In helping Tyson find the object of her own romantic obsession, Hoskins finds the truth about himself in a violent confrontation that doesn't allow for illusions. Director and co-writer Neil (The Company of Wolves) Jordan has an unerring eye for random glints of humanity even in these squalid surroundings. And Hoskins, unexpectedly moving as he builds a new life out of his shattered fantasies, has created one of the great characterizations of recent times. Prepare to be wowed. (R)

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