George (Bob Hoskins) has just been released from seven years in prison, after doing the time for his gangster boss Mortwell (Michael Caine), but the first person he wants to meet now is his teenage daughter, who he hasn't seen since he was jailed. However, when he visits the home of his ex-wife an argument quickly erupts and he is humiliated as the door slams in his face and her neighbours rally round to see what is happening - luckily his old friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane) is there to rescue him. But the question remains: what can George do now?
He makes a poor decision in this, one of Hoskins' most acclaimed roles, which garnered him an Oscar nomination not to mention a host of plaudits and the pleasure of being the reason Mona Lisa was the success it was. It may not be as high profile now as it was back in the mid-eighties, but it still has its fans, and as in its heyday that is down to the performance of its star, who effectively carried the movie through a plot that was rather too murky for its own good, only clearing up in the latter stages. Yet director and co-writer Neil Jordan, here scripting with David Leland, turned this to the story's advantage.
So although he doesn't quite grasp it, poor old George is trapped in a mystery, and rather than being at the heart of it he actually closer to the periphery. The point being that he is never too sure of what it going on, never mind that he is having the wool pulled over his eyes as a pawn in a bigger plot than he is aware of, and while we can understand this state of affairs, we're not exactly up to speed with what is happening, leaving the viewer in a kind of limbo throughout. We do know that to go to Mortwell asking for another job is George's first mistake - except that his first mistake was taking the fall for him all those years ago.
Presently George, finding Mortwell keeping him at arm's length, is offered the position of driver to a high class call girl called Simone (Cathy Tyson). They don't exactly hit it off from the start, as you'll notice the script positively delights in keeping our much put-upon hero in the dark, so he is left to put two and two together on his own, but soon he is flattered by the attention of this classy woman who happens to make her living in decidedly non-classy ways. Simone was accused of being a shallow fantasy figure for the non-glamorous George, but Jordan doesn't pretend she is anything else, which makes the luckless dupe all the more malleable in the hands of those less scrupulous around him.
By and by Simone's real concerns become apparent as she recruits her new admirer into tracking down another prostitute, Cathy (Kate Hardie), a mission easier said than done. It does mean a vividly seedy recreation of some of London's least savoury haunts, filled with exploited young women and sleazy men doing the exploiting, and George has a memorable meeting with a fifteen-year-old girl (Sammi Davis) whose predicament, and her lack of propulsion for getting out of it, will make your skin crawl. Also worth mentioning is Caine as the incredibly sinister crime boss who we can tell George would be better staying as far a way from as possible, although he's in but a few scenes he's one of the star's best villains, bringing out cold-eyed qualities that Caine could do so effectively. But this was really Hoskins' show, and his bewildered little tough guy who is not as tough as he thought he was is what gives Mona Lisa its reason for sticking with it. Without him this would be too depressing for words; Hoskins supplies the humanity in a world sadly rejecting it. Music by Michael Kamen.