HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 July 2004
My daughter, who had seen this film and loved it, suggested that we watch it together. I agreed and was very glad I did so, as I really enjoyed this bittersweet film. It is a well-acted, well-directed effort about a free-thinking art history professor, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), who in the nineteen fifties, lacking Ivy League credentials, manages, through a twist of fate, to get a berth as a professor at traditional and conservative Wellesley College. It is here that she hopes to find herself instructing the leaders of tomorrow.
What she finds, instead, is a group of highly intelligent, young women, who are more interested in marrying the leaders of tomorrow than in being leaders themselves. Ms. Watson succeeds in opening the minds of her students to the possibilities and choices life can offer and learns a little about such possibilities and choices herself. She also finds friendship and romance while at Wellesley. The film also focuses on four of her students, all of whom are given stellar portrayals by the young actresses playing them.
Elizabeth "Betty" Warren (Kirsten Dunst) is the quintessential fifties girl, obsessed with getting her Mrs. before getting her BA. She later discovers that one should be careful for what one wishes. She is also a nasty piece of work who doesn't care what misery for others her poison pen invectives and barbed comments cause. She eventually gets her comeuppance in a way that she never envisioned. Her best friend, Joan Brandwyn (Julia Styles), is a beautiful, highly intelligent, young woman who harbors a secret wish to become a lawyer. Yet, at the same time, she desperately wants to become a wife and mother. Hers is a decision between choices. She ultimately makes a choice that causes Ms. Watson some consternation but with which she is happy. Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a young Jewish miss in a WASP environment who finds herself having short term affairs with her hunky professor and with an older, married man. Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a pleasingly plump, pretty cellist who finds true love, only to find it derailed by the ever evil Betty.
Marcia Gay Harden is brilliant in the supporting role of Nancy Abbey, Wellesley College's professor of etiquette and deportment, who, one discovers, has not always followed her own staid advice. Noted British actress, Juliet Stevenson, is outstanding in the small role of Amanda Armstrong, the college nurse and closet lesbian, who is still mourning the loss of her companion of many years. Marian Seldes is perfectly cast as President Jocelyn Carr, whose role at the college seems to be that of keeping the well-heeled alumni and trustees of Wellesley College happy with the status quo. Donna Mitchell turns in a stunning performance as Betty's self-absorbed mother, a woman who is a slave to the expected and puts appearances before her daughter's happiness. Julia Roberts is luminous as the role of Katherine Watson, infusing it with an intelligence and natural warmth that radiates off the screen. Though she has a little bit too contemporary an edge, she still manages to carry the day in the role of the
forward thinking professor with the Mona Lisa smile.
All in all, this is a wonderful, highly enjoyable film in which the social mores and style of the nineteen fifties are well depicted.