Los Angeles Times

The Scarlet Letter


Friday October 13, 1995

     Nathaniel Hawthorne probably thought he knew something about writing, and through the years not a few people have agreed with him. But when the makers of "The Scarlet Letter" looked over his celebrated novel, it was more in pity than admiration.
     True, the guy had come up with Hester Prynne, the adulterous young woman forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her clothing, usually considered a heroine to reckon with. But then Hawthorne, timid soul that he was, regrettably lost his nerve. He failed to turn Hester into the kind of fearless, take-charge, watch-my-dust individual strong enough to attract the attention of an actress like Demi Moore.
     And, after placing his story in the Puritan-dominated Boston of the 17th Century, Hawthorne squandered numerous dramatic chances the setting was perfect for. Where was his clandestine sex scene, for pity's sake? Or his lyrical nude bathing interludes, one for each gender? Couldn't he have found room for rape, suicide and those nearby witch hunts? And weren't indigenous peoples hanging around the neighborhood? Where were his scalpings, his bare-breasted maidens and his rampaging savages? The poor fool was wasting opportunities left and right. And when Hawthorne's downer of an ending is thrown in, it's amazing he sold any books at all.
     Suffice it to say that while Hawthorne may have blown his chance, screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart and director Roland Joffe have seen theirs and taken it, adding all the above and more to their version of Hawthorne's undernourished story. When this film's opening titles read "freely adapted from," they are not being excessively modest.
     Like the moral climate of the Massachusetts colony it depicts, this "Scarlet Letter" is equal parts piety and hysteria. In making a lusty bodice-ripper out of Hawthorne's carefully wrought chapters, the film is often an unintentionally amusing hoot. It takes itself so much in dead earnest, is so lugubrious a repository of lines like "How close they are, love and hate" and "Who is to say what is a sin in God's eyes?," that bemused laughter is often the only sane response.
     From the moment she steps off the boat from England, sent ahead by her husband to set up house, Hester Prynne scandalizes every narrow-minded Puritan in the colony. Ms. Self-Reliance, she insists on wearing daring clothes, bathing in a tub, even buying her own indentured servants. "You are headstrong, Mistress Prynne," says one aghast local, and even the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) admiringly tells her, "Your tongue knows no rules."
     Besides being a convincing speaker on the wages of sin, the Reverend is also a devotee of * au naturel bathing (as Hester happily discovers) and cares so much for the local Native Americans he spends his spare time translating the Bible into Algonquin. The only two admirers of Milton in town, he and Hester are soon making eyes at each other, but she is married and he is a Puritan, after all, so they agree to keep their distance.
     To take her mind off of Dimmy, Hester befriends an eccentric local woman named Harriet Hibbons (Joan Plowright), who runs a combination multicultural commune and halfway house for wayward waifs. Soon Hester is heading up what looks like the first women's group in the New World, encouraging self-expression and shocking everyone with her brazen, free-spirited beliefs.
     Then, one fateful day, word comes that Hester's husband, Roger, has supposedly fallen victim to those pesky savages. She and Dimmy can't keep their hands off each other any longer, and soon Hester is with child. Worse than that, resilient Roger (a misdirected Robert Duvall), an evil sort whose temperament has not been improved by months spent in captivity, secretly skulks into town and plots an awful revenge on Hester and whoever it is who seduced her.
     "The Scarlet Letter" has been envisioned as an old-fashioned Joan Crawford-type star vehicle for Demi Moore, who--in addition to outraging public opinion--gets to be strong while suffering when those Puritan elders, noticeably lacking in a sense of humor, lock her up for refusing to name her baby's father. The only flaw in her presentation is a hairstyle featuring a presumably historically accurate pair of long, curly sidelocks that make her look, at least from the neck up, like a perky Hasidic teen-ager who can't stay out of trouble.
     Giving a more restrained performance than one would've thought he had in him, Gary Oldman is as effective as director Joffe--who has made strained seriousness his trademark with films like "The Killing Fields," "The Mission" and "City of Joy"--allows anyone to be. Though it's unclear what the audience would be for a faithful rendition of the Hawthorne novel, the question of who would ever want to see this one is murkier still.

The Scarlet Letter, 1995. R, for violence and sexuality. A Lightmotive/Allied Stars/Cinergi/Moving Pictures production, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Roland Joffe. Producer Andrew G. Vajna. Executive producers Dodi Fayed, Tova Laiter. Screenplay Douglas Day Stewart. Cinematographer Alex Thomson. Editor Thom Noble. Costumes Gabriella Pescucci. Music John Barry. Production design Roy Walker. Art director Tony Wollard. Set decorator Rosalind Shingleton. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Demi Moore as Hester Prynne. Gary Oldman as Arthur Dimmesdale. Robert Duvall as Roger Prynne. Lisa Jolliff-Andoh as Mituba. Edward Hardwicke as John Bellingham. Robert Prosky as Horace Stonehall. Roy Dotrice as Thomas Cheever. Joan Plowright as Harriet Hibbons.

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