Dir: Mike Newell. 2003. US. 117mins.

Mona Lisa Smile is a not-bad movie that is, alas, fatally at war with itself. On the one hand, it's a well-acted, convincingly-mounted period piece set in smug, elitist Wellesley College in 1953 that takes up, far more seriously than anyone had a right to expect, important issues like the proper role for women in a socially discombobulated postwar America and issues of female empowerment that continue to resonate today. (Here we can perhaps detect the sensibility of Mike Newell, its director, who showed his skill with female characters and actors in Enchanted April and Four Weddings And A Funeral.)

On the other hand, it's a Hollywood film starring Julia Roberts that wants, for the best commercial reasons, to press all the right buttons and leave the audience feeling good about everything and everybody. Though it's well-intentioned, this internal clash will condemn the film to only modest domestic box-office receipts and less-than-stirring business abroad.

Roberts plays Katharine Watson, who's just been hired to teach art history at Wellesley, a women's college in New England. The students she encounters there are smart, well-educated, and thoroughly committed - to becoming the best possible wives and mothers they can be.

Katharine takes it upon herself to stir things up, using subversive teaching methods such as introducing them to modern art. In the process, she has some extraordinary influence on her charges, but puts her future at the conservative college in jeopardy.

The most dissatisfying thing about the movie for most audiences will be its unsuccessful attempt to reconcile its feminism which, after all, correctly blames men for oppressing women, with its need to come up with a romantic relationship for Roberts that will occupy the emotional centre of the film. The filmmakers' unwise choice is the supremely unlikely Bill Dunbar (West), a teacher of Italian at the college who sleeps with his students. It doesn't help that West's screen presence is virtually nil, as is, inevitably, the chemistry between these would-be lovers.

And here, where it most needs to work, the script is utterly lacking in believability. The movie's basic, initially interesting, thematic issues are stated early on and repeated endlessly. The plot starts wandering aimlessly about two-thirds through, tying up bits and pieces here, half-heartedly developing other conflicts there.

The performances, happily, are far superior to the script. While Roberts is always (though never more than) workmanlike, Marcia Gay Harden is terrific as the sad teacher of etiquette who lost her love in the war, a character 180 degrees away from her brilliant portrayal of the painter Lee Krasner in Pollock.

The young actresses - Dunst as Roberts's arch enemy who gets her comeuppance while learning some important life lessons, Stiles as the brilliant student tempted away from a fairy-tale marriage by Yale Law School, and Maggie Gyllenhall as the sluttish Manhattanite looking for a father figure - give a jolt of life and energy to these somewhat cliched figures. Special kudos, however, must go to newcomer Goodwin, who's fantastic as the cello-playing ugly duckling in desperate search of a man.

Prod cos: Columbia Pictures, Revolution Studios, Red Om
US dist:
Columbia Pictures
Int'l dist:
Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Richard Baratta, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Joe Roth, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler
Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Anastas N Michos
Mick Audsley
Rachel Portman
Main cast:
Julia Roberts, Marcia Gay Harden, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson