Reviewed by EWAN McDONALD

(Herald rating: * *)


Mona Lisa Smile ... or Dead Artists Society, for this story of a free-spirited, free-thinking art-history teacher who challenges her straight-laced pupils and colleagues in a conservative, upper-class American college gives more than a nod of the beret to Dead Poets Society, the 1989 Robin Williams vehicle.

For Williams, read Julia Roberts as Katherine Watson, newly arrived at Wellesley, "the most conservative college in the nation" (and incidentally Hillary Clinton's old school) in 1953, an institution where important studies have included etiquette, how to cross and uncross the legs and attracting a husband.

Watson is intimidated by her classroom of ferociously intelligent pupils until she realises that when the girls leave the syllabus they are out of their depth.

Like Williams' English professor she will use radical teaching methods that will lead to problems with the authorities but endear her to students like cruel Betty (Kirsten Dunst), sensible Joan (Julia Stiles) and naughty Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

She will cease to become a teacher and become — an inspiration!

She will, of course, also run into trouble romantically, forced to choose between the old flame (John Slattery), the womanising professor (Dominic West) and her fiercely independent lifestyle.

British director Mike Newell's transatlantic career has ranged over wit (Four Weddings And A Funeral), melodrama (An Awfully Big Adventure), charm (Into The West) and gangsters beating the rap (Donnie Brasco). Here he employs elements of all four and, typically, employs a first-rate cast. But the movie lacks subtlety and from its earliest frames the story settles for the predictable.

Art History 001 and kindergarten-level sociology are displayed on the DVD, proving yet again that if you want Deep Thought, don't ask a Hollywood star. The Art Forum has our heroines pondering the importance of art. Gyllenhaal, asked about the Mona Lisa's smile: "She looks like she's thinking or feeling something complicated." Roberts, in College: Then And Now, a study on how far women have come since the 50s: "It's a work of fiction steeped in factuality."

However, What Women Wanted In 1953 points out that consumerism has taken a tighter hold on society in the decades since, which is probably more relevant to a Hollywood star's lifestyle.

There's no director's commentary — Mike Newell possibly considered that his marquee names have said more than enough — but there is an Elton John video, The Heart Of Every Girl.