The credits acknowledge that this new version of “The Scarlet Letter” has been “freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne,” which is one of the understatements of the year. Opening with what look like outtakes from “The Mission” and continuing with fat slices of “The Last of the Mohicans,””The Crucible” and hothouse eroticism that’s pure Hollywood, this borderline campy look at the Puritans is politically correct melodrama with sex on the brain. Demi Moore’s feisty Hester Prynne could prove inspiring to teenage femmes, who rep the film’s best commercial hope, but mainstream audiences are unlikely to make this a red-letter B.O. draw.
As lugubriously and lubriciously directed by Roland Joffe, pic’s first act is basically devoted to headstrong Hester and Gary Oldman’s repressed romantic reverend casting furtive looks at each other until they can’t stand it any longer, while the remainder shows them suffering the extensive repercussions of their one night of passion. A very ’90s take on a 1660s tale written in 1850, as a picture of early colonial life it’s about as convincing as “Pocahontas.”
After an Indian funeral prologue designed to show the natives getting restless, Douglas Day Stewart’s script starts off well ahead of Hawthorne’s opening, with Hester Prynne stepping off the boat from England and immediately ruffling feathers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by wearing lace and insisting upon living alone until her husband joins her.
After spying a man swimming nude, Hester is stuck in a ripely verdant forest straight out of Ridley Scott’s “Legend” when she is rescued by Arthur Dimmesdale , who turns out to be not only the skinny dipper but the community’s charismatic young pastor. Both are embarrassed by their obvious mutual attraction, and their relations are confined to heavy eye contact until Hester’s husband is reported killed by Indians, an event she celebrates by taking the reverend out to the barn and defrocking him.
When Hester is finally forced to admit that she’s pregnant, she’s jailed until her daughter is born, after which she’s released but forced to wear an embroidered red letter “A” for Adultery whenever she goes out in public. All blame would be shifted to the guilty man if she would only reveal his identity, but their secret is well kept.
Who should turn up but her long-lost husband, Roger (Robert Duvall), who all this time has been dancing with wolves after having been captured by the local tribe. Threatening his wife after finding out what she’s done, Roger slips into the community posing as a physician while plotting his nasty revenge.
Hawthorne’s partly tragic ending has been junked in favor of one in which the Indians get to play the cavalry, no one dies who doesn’t deserve to, and everyone who needs a comeuppance gets it.
As chest-heaving romantic melodrama, it’s all so solemn that it’s silly, while as history this is a typical example of P.C.-era feel-good revisionism. If matters could really have been resolved as favorably for Native Americans and enlightened colonists as Disney has depicted here and in “Pocahontas,” the United States would never have happened. And neither would Hollywood.
Joffe seems to want to detail seldom-noted aspects of early colonial life, such as the extent to which Indians circulated in town, the presence of a few black slaves and the added restrictions with which women had to cope. He then blows it, however, with such scenes as Hester’s black servant girl luxuriating in an onanistic sponge bath while her mistress and the parson are getting it on out back.
Moore obviously connects with the frank, mind-of-her-own aspect of Hester Prynne and makes a respectable account of the character on that basis, even if her own bath scene adds an element to Puritan life that’s more Vanity Fair than Hawthorne. Oldman’s Dimmesdale is initially promising, as his somewhat bashful humor and powerful oratory from the pulpit both register well. Later on, however , the range of his activities becomes considerably more proscribed, as he occasionally protests but mostly suffers nobly in silence. Robert Duvall, who with his short-cropped hair looks strikingly like Lance Henricksen upon emerging from the wild, plays a one-note villain with an uncharacteristic lack of depth. Joan Plowright provides abundant pleasure as the most free-living of the colonial women.
Production has been lushly mounted, with the mostly Nova Scotian locations providing a plausible, if not entirely topographically accurate, substitute for Massachusetts, and Roy Walker’s production design giving a fresh, full look at a new and thriving community. Gabriella Pescucci’s costumes register strongly, while Alex Thomson’s lustrous lensing borders on the drippingly sensual at times. John Barry’s score much too languidly echoes his work on “Out of Africa” and “Dances With Wolves.”