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THE SCARLET LETTER

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: As with ‘The Bounty,’ elsewhere on this page, here’s another oft-filmed story that has earned a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino Lorber. But in this case it’s a real head-scratcher, since, of all the film versions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale, this is by far the worst. (It carries a dreary 13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and Leonard Maltin gives it a ‘BOMB’ rating in his ‘Movie Guide.’) Here’s my review, published in the Deseret News on Oct. 13, 1995.

You know you have a bad movie when Gary Oldman gives the best performance and Robert Duvall gives the worst, which is precisely the case in this latest — and most ridiculous — adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's oft-filmed "The Scarlet Letter."

As if it's a truth-in-advertising disclaimer, the opening credits declare that the script has "freely adapted" Hawthorne's novel. A major source of inspiration would also seem to be James Fenimore Cooper — or maybe just the movie version of "The Last of the Mohicans."

Instead of a morality tale about a conflicted woman undergoing a spiritual crisis, however, screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "The Blue Lagoon") has fashioned a sappy love story, retaining only the most basic elements of the book and adding a series of thin subplots. And director Roland Joffe ("The Killing Fields," "The Mission") gives the material such somber treatment that unintentional laughs are inevitable.

As the film opens, feminist-before-her-time Hester Prynne (played by a horribly miscast Demi Moore) arrives in Puritan New England with a chip on her shoulder. She's ready for a fight with the ruling elders and within seconds she offends both male authority figures and the women who support them.

It seems that Hester has been sent ahead to this new settlement by her husband, Roger Prynne (Robert Duvall, whose first appearance is quite late in the film), with instructions to find a home and get things settled. But the locals are shocked when Hester sets up housekeeping alone in a beautiful cliffside cottage, where she employs indentured servants to help her plant crops and fix up the house.

     

         Robert Duvall, Demi Moore, 'The Scarlet Letter'

One day, while gardening, Hester sees a ruby-red bird (which appears to be a canary with a dye job). She follows it into the woods and, to the strains of John Barry's overwhelming music (with assistance from a heavenly choir), Hester spies the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, swimming nude in the river.

For Hester it's lust-at-first-sight, and before long she and the good reverend are exchanging leering glances during benign conversations. But they keep their distance until word comes that Hester's husband is presumed dead after a shipload of settlers is slaughtered by Indians.

Upon hearing the news, Hester and Arthur immediately confess their love for each another, which leads to a tempestuous sex scene in Hester's granary. Meanwhile, Hester's slave Mituba (Lisa Jolliff-Andoh), realizing her mistress will be occupied for a while, decides to sneak into her bath, inviting the crimson canary indoors. And while Hester and Arthur frolic in piles of grain, Mituba symbolically wraps up her ritual by snuffing a candle in the water.

Later, feeling guilty, Arthur explains to Hester that they cannot legally be together for another seven years, when the missing Roger will be declared officially dead. And carrying on in the meantime might be unwise in a society where adulterers are routinely hanged.

So, they keep quiet and avoid each other — until Hester finds she is pregnant and is put on trial. In court, she refuses to identify the child's father and later gives birth behind bars. Upon her release, she is required to go around with a red letter "A" pinned to her breast and she's followed around by a little drummer boy.

     

                       Demi Moore, 'The Scarlet Letter'

At this point, Roger, who has actually been held captive by Indians, has flipped out. In fact, he becomes so nuts the Indians don't want him around anymore. Upon his release, Roger heads for the New England colony, finds Hester with her illegitimate child and plots a twisted revenge — one that takes several years and culminates in an Indian massacre.

Hester's daughter Pearl, an important character in the book, has been reduced to virtually nothing here (though she is the film's occasional narrator, voiced by Jodhi May). Most other characters are turned into cardboard cutouts.

The actors try but even such stalwarts as Duvall and Joan Plowright appear uncomfortable. Oldman is surprisingly effective most of the way, though he hardly seems like someone who would inspire the kind of automatic romance that Joffe and Stewart are after.

The result is merely a big-budget, opulently costumed soap opera that is way too long (two hours, 15 minutes) and way too slow.

And yes, as you may already have heard, there is a happy, ride-off-into-the-sunset-together ending.

"The Scarlet Letter" is rated R for violence, rape, gore, sex and nudity — and all three of the top-billed stars have nude scenes, by the way.