“Is that Channel 4?’ quips Thomas (Robbie Coltrane) when he finds (Bob Hoskins) watching a pornographic movie in his lock-up garage; it’s a funny gag, specific to the mid 80’s when Channel 4 had accidentally gained a reputation for showing risqué content as part of the UK’s suddenly expanded four channel network. It’s a moment that fits nicely with the downbeat realism and pawky street-humour of Neil Jordan’s drama/thriller, which showcases an arguable career best for Hoskins, and a strong ensemble including Michael Caine in an uncharacteristically venal turn as a gangster.
Mona Lisa was described as a neo-noir; co-written by Jordan and David Leland, it owes some debts to two Paul Schrader scripts, Taxi Driver and Hardcore. Like the latter, it deals with a search through a seedy underworld for a missing girl; she’s a friend of Simone (Cathy Tyson0, a high-end prostitute who takes on George (Hoskins) as her driver. Her pimp is Mortwell (Caine) who wants to use George to gather blackmail information on Simone’s clients. George has a secret passion for Simone, and the die is cast for a unsavoury triangle that inevitable leads to sudden splattery bloodshed.
Mona Lisa is often overlooked in favour of Hoskins’ better-known turn in The Long Good Friday, but he arguably shows more range here as a rough-and-ready customer, fresh out of jail, who finds himself bemused and side-lined by the criminal class he’s unwisely associated with. His tender relationship with Simone is sensitively caught, and Tyson also makes something unique out of a role that flirts with cliché.
The sexual and violent content of Mona Lisa stopped it being a tv staple, even the outré minds at Channel 4 circa 1986 found it tricky to programme, despite critical acclaim But in the days of streaming, anyone offended has only themselves to blame if they don’t like what they see. This is a master-class in the old Play for Today style from all concerned, and if you’ve got the stomach for a brutal depiction of the darker side of London, Mona Lisa doesn’t so much engage you with a smile as rabbit-punches you in the gut.