The brilliant breakthrough film by writer-director Neil Jordan journeys into the dark heart of the London underworld to weave a gripping, noir-infused love story. Bob Hoskins received a multitude of honors—including an Oscar nomination—for his touchingly vulnerable, not-so-tough-guy portrayal of George, recently released from prison and hired by a sinister mob boss (Michael Caine) to chauffeur call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson, in a celebrated performance) between high-paying clients. George’s fascination with the elegant, enigmatic Simone leads him on a dangerous quest through the city’s underbelly, where love is a weakness to be exploited and betrayed. Jordan’s colorful dialogue and eye for evocatively surreal details lend a dreamlike sheen to Mona Lisa, an unconventionally romantic tale of damaged people searching for tenderness in an unforgiving world.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their long out-of-print, non-anamorphic DVD edition for Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. Criterion’s 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from the same 2K restoration performed by Arrow Films back in 2015 (or so), which was transferred from the 35mm original camera negative.
It’s certainly not worth pointing out that this is an improvement over Criterion’s old DVD; most anything would look better than that washed-out, non-anamorphic presentation. And though I can’t compare to Arrow’s own Blu-ray edition as I have never seen it, this new presentation compared to the old Image Entertainment Blu-ray’s interlaced mess is no contest. Grain can be iffy in places; it's generally sharp and natural looking, but some of those darker sequences can come off a bit muddled or noisy. Not horrendously so, but just visible enough in areas of the screen. Outside of those instances the presentation has a wonderful film quality to it, offering incredible details and textures, while also keeping a nice crisp look. Those finer details, whether it be fabrics of suits or the scuzz on the walls of some of the film’s less-than-reputable settings, it all looks fantastic. The film has a lot of smoky or foggy shots and they’re rendered well, the gradients looking clean without any issues with banding. Dynamic range is nice, leading to clear details in some of the film’s darker and seedier settings.
Black levels are clean and colours are mostly strong; some red-lit interiors can get a little noisy, but those reds are vibrant and sharp otherwise. Blues, greens, pinks and so forth also all look nice. The film has also been cleaned up substantially, only a few very minor blemishes ever popping up.
Despite a couple of minor warts I found this a very pleasing presentation in general.
Criterion includes the film’s original monaural soundtrack in lossless 1.0 PCM. Outside of some accents maybe being an issue for a few in North America, dialogue is clear with wonderful fidelity. The film’s music (which includes Genesis’ awkwardly inserted “In Too Deep”) manages to pull off an impressive amount of range despite the inherent limitations of the soundtrack, and even the film’s climax has some surprising louder moments present.
Criterion ports over their audio commentary featuring director Neil Jordan and actor Bob Hoskins, originally recorded in 1997 for their LaserDisc edition and included on their previous DVD. The two have been recorded separately and then edited together, typical of Criterion’s LaserDisc tracks, though Jordan probably has more airtime. Jordan of course talks about the project and its development, sharing details about the script's many drafts, addressing some of the head-scratching elements that appear in the film, like the reasons for the inclusion of the rabbit. On top of production stories (like George Harrison insisting there be no full-frontal male nudity or Jordan being forced to insert that Genesis song) he also talks about the film’s imagery, the characters, and the themes he wanted to touch on with the film. Hoskins talks about his performance and working with his co-star, Cathy Tyson, and shares his thoughts on some of Jordan’s additions to the story. We also get to hear about a scene where the two characters become more intimate with one another, which Hoskins recalls, along with Tyson, objecting to; thankfully the scene was cut. It’s packed with great material, delving deeply into the material and not just the technical aspects. What's more, like a lot of Criterion’s edited commentaries of the time, it moves rather briskly.
Criterion has licensed a couple of Arrow’s exclusive interviews from their 2015 UK edition: one with writer David Leland (19-minutes) and another with producer Stephen Woolley (13-minutes). They both talk about the production, but Leland’s contribution ends up being the more substantial one, the writer covering the various drafts and the development of the story and characters. He also points out that Michael Caine had originally been considered for the lead role, though his schedule didn’t allow for the commitment (Sean Connery was also mentioned in the commentary track).
Criterion has chosen not to carry over the Jordan interview Arrow recorded for their release, instead throwing together a new group interview (conducted remotely) featuring Jordan and actor Cathy Tyson, moderated by critic Ryan Gilbey. I don’t believe Tyson has ever participated in any sort of supplement around the film prior to this, so I thought this was a big “get” on Criterion’s part. Some topics are repeated, like George Harrison coming on set and Jordan talking about the story again, but on top of a couple of new topics (Jordan explaining why he decided against explaining why Hoskin’s character went to jail, which Leland manages to explain in his interview) most of the focus is on Tyson’s performance. She talks about her first feature film after coming from theater, going over how she had to think differently when acting for the screen, Hoskins there as a mentor to help her through some things. The trio also delve into a few of her scenes, particularly the one between her and Hoskins on the boardwalk, and Tyson talks about how her character was received, mentioning the critical praise and the criticisms thrown at her. I also enjoyed Jordan and Tyson talking about where her character would be now. Great little addition and I’m still really thrilled they were able to get Tyson to participate.
Criterion finishes things off with an 11-minute clip of interviews filmed at Cannes in 1986, featuring Jordan and Hoskins talking about the film and the development of his character. Criterion also includes an insert featuring an essay by Gilbey, focusing on the film’s characters. The old DVD featured a short introduction by Jordan in its insert, which hasn’t been carried over to this edition.
Criterion’s previous DVD only featured the commentary and a trailer (not included here), so this edition ends up offering a nice little upgrade.
The film finally receives a worthwhile edition in North America.