Times Arts Editor

The new English film “Mona Lisa” confirms that Bob Hoskins is a very, very good and disciplined actor, as was clear from his performance in the original television version of “Pennies From Heaven” and his Iago to Anthony Hopkins’ Othello, and subsequently from “The Long Good Friday,” “The Cotton Club” and “Sweet Liberty.”

What is now also clear is that he is the newest in that admirable postwar linkage of charismatic British star actors, from Richard Burton forward. Like his fellow Cockney Michael Caine, Hoskins can play hero or villain, comedy or tragedy, or that rich and ambiguous territory that may carry all four flavors at once.

To spice the brew still further, he has twice now played American archetypes--a mobster and a Hollywood screenwriter--with lethal linguistic accuracy, even though his native conversational tongue is Cockney at its most aitchlessly pure.

“Mona Lisa,” directed and co-authored by Neil Jordan, a young (36) Irish-born novelist, is a testing and rewarding context for Hoskins, a role of such challenges, changes and depths as an actor might wait a lifetime for.


Like “Midnight Cowboy,” with which the new film invites very favorable comparison, “Mona Lisa” is ultimately about the discovery of goodness amid depravity, selflessness amid exploitation, private courage in a tumult of ruthless cynicism.

The setting is not the lower depths of Manhattan but the sleazy warrens of Soho and the high-tariff hotels where the same kinky pleasures run a bit more.

The trick to doing films of harsh social realism is to avoid having the story become, as someone once said in another context, the object of its own scorn.

There is precedent for the movie sermon on violence doubling as a tour-de-force display of violence, for the assault on pornography to border on the pornographic. It’s known as poisoning your cake and selling it too.


In an innocent earlier day, when Hollywood films had to insist that crime didn’t pay, it was sometimes only a death-bed repentence that made the point--after 90 minutes of Art Deco gangster lairs, with white telephones and white satin sheets to match.

What was historic about “Midnight Cowboy” was not simply that it was the first X-rated film to win an Oscar, but that it approached its intrinsically sordid goings-on with a restraint that approached the heroic and viewed its story from a very traditional ethical stance. The sinner saw the error of his ways and on the other hand discovered the positive powers of love and compassion, even in civilization’s gritty underside.

“Mona Lisa,” too, has a moral center, and it shows not least in the careful and unexploitive way its potentially explosive materials are handled. Cathy Tyson as the high-priced black call girl--and the apparently chaste love of Hoskins’ life--does what she does, but there isn’t a leer to be found. The neon-lit domain of commercial sex looks supremely anti-aphrodisiac.

Hoskins’ George is just back from seven years in prison, where he took the fall for the particularly unpleasant racketeer played by Caine. He rewards George by making him chauffeur to Tyson. George has not been precisely an angel but his good instincts haven’t been eroded or callused over by the slammer or a hard life.


He’s got a quick and caustic tongue, and there are stretches of “Mona Lisa,” with Hoskins in full rage, that are very funny. But beneath the bluster it is clear early on that George is a sort of Soho version of the last angry man, outraged by the violence and the exploitations he finds around him.

He is a reluctant crusader, and there is no suggestion that the streets will be significantly less mean when he has done the little he can do. Still, it is a pleasing novelty among present films to find one in which indignation is a factor and a man does what he has to do because it’s the right thing to do.

There is a subplot in which he seeks a reconciliation with his estranged daughter. Like many of the addict-hookers he sees, his daughter is a teen-ager, and she becomes a kind of index against which to measure the abusive and corrupting world in which George moves. The resolution of the subplot suggests that, like the Sligo man he is, Neil Jordan is not without sentiment.

“Mona Lisa” is what you might call all-stops-out film making, a nightmare poem from contemporary life, contrasty with noise and quiet, sharp humor and sudden tension--and, at the center of it all, Bob Hoskins in one of those infrequent and indelible performances that have to be seen by anyone who cares about the art.