Adultery as fashion accessory

Moore and Oldman smolder in a racy, muddled version of The Scarlet Letter

A Roland Joffe film just wouldn't be a Roland Joffe film without a flaming cart rolling uncontrollably through the town square; I'd swear there was one in The Mission, The Killing Fields, even, if I remember correctly, City of Joy.

I'm at somewhat of a loss to explain why Joffe has chosen such an incendiary image for his trademark, but I have a few ideas: first, since the cart is always moving, it creates the illusion of action in his stuffy, dull films. Second, a fire, particularly one on wheels, is a handy alternative to developing any real sense of threat or dread; it's the rough equivalent of arbitrarily inserting a child into a car-chase scene as a nudge to the audience, "Hey! You see what almost happened?" Or finally--and this is my bet--maybe Joffe's really a closet pyromaniac who gets his kicks out of watching things burn.

There's a good deal of support for the last hypothesis, because in Joffe's movies, even things that don't burn usually smolder a lot. Case in point: Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, the hapless adulterers in his latest picture, a remake of The Scarlet Letter. They sweat and grunt and swoon over each other with such an overblown lack of restraint that you check the marquee when leaving the theater to make sure you didn't stumble into a revival of Love Story by mistake.

The basic story is the familiar 10th-grade assigned summer reading staple. Set in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hester Prynne (Moore) becomes smitten with the charismatic Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (Oldman), and he with her. Once they are convinced that Hester's husband, Roger (Robert Duvall), has been slaughtered by local Indians, they release their passion in a fierce, erotic one-night stand. (The only cliché missing from their sensual encounter is a song by The Righteous Brothers.) Hester becomes pregnant, and without a husband present, the elders deduce that she must be guilty of adultery. Hester refuses to name her lover, so after an extended imprisonment she is forced to wear the letter "A" on her breast as a constant reminder of her shame.

I might have admired the filmmakers more if they had contented themselves with producing a run-of-the-mill bodice-ripper, instead of trying to dress it up as a "prestige" production, trading off a well-known name they damn well never intended to honor. The emblem Hester must wear, for example, slowly goes from being a drab, spare symbol to a gilt-edged piece of fine embroidery; rather than leave it a badge of reproach and dishonor, Hester turns it into a fashion accessory. She and Arthur are also the most frolicsome couple Puritanism ever produced, and apparently the only young, sexual people in the entire colony. (Almost all of the women are either stern hags or mousy maidens, except for Joan Plowright, playing her part as the salty Harriet Hibbins with bawdy bravado. She may be the only person in the entire movie who's actually having fun.)

Hester Prynne is a trailblazing character in American letters: a woman stronger and more centered than all the men around her. She has convictions and the wherewithal to suffer the indignities meted to her for a vague, unfathomable (in the sexist view of the elders) "crime." All that considered, Moore still seems a bit too modern for the part; she's best at just being tearful and trembly, and leaving the serious acting to professionals.

Douglas Day Stewart, nestled in the refuge of "freely" adapting Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel (that credit gets the biggest laugh in the movie), fashions a screenplay that more resembles his script for An Officer and a Gentleman than the parable about love and religious hypocrisy that Hawthorne intended. With Joffe's prodding (and Moore's box office clout), what should have been social criticism is transformed into historical romance with a sanctimonious undercurrent and happy ending.

But though its charms are definitely subtle (and they may be the only things about this melodrama that are), The Scarlet Letter is passable entertainment. The film's forays into political commentary are underdeveloped and occasionally just plain intrusive, but at least Joffe has the good sense to cut back quickly to Moore's pouty lips and dewy cow-eyes. After all, Joffe's canny enough to realize what the audience came to see, and he's making as commercial a bid as he can possibly muster.

I don't expect many people will be going to The Scarlet Letter with dog-eared versions of the book in their pockets. The Utne Reader will not be the chief venue for marketing the film. High school students who watch the movie in order to cheat on mid-terms will be sorely disappointed by their grades. While a muddled and often silly romance, The Scarlet Letter is a mercifully less ponderous film than Joffe could be expected to produce; without the constraints of feeling compelled to be true to his source material, Joffe has conjured up a marvelous disaster, a picture so grand in its wretchedness it's something of a surprise to realize that it is watchable at all.

The Scarlet Letter. Hollywood Pictures. Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall. Written by Douglas Day Stewart. Directed by Roland Joffe. Now showing

 
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