Funneling all the heart and spirit missing from the season's blockbusters into one movie, director Pen Densham debuts with "Moll Flanders," a film that might do for Daniel Defoe what numerous releases last year did for Jane Austen. The tale of a self-described "murderess, whore and thief," this costume drama also should send Robin Wright to the upper echelon of actresses with the talent, charisma and unflagging watchability to carry a movie.

Funneling all the heart and spirit missing from the season’s blockbusters into one movie, director Pen Densham debuts with “Moll Flanders,” a film that might do for Daniel Defoe what numerous releases last year did for Jane Austen. The tale of a self-described “murderess, whore and thief,” this costume drama also should send Robin Wright to the upper echelon of actresses with the talent, charisma and unflagging watchability to carry a movie. That’s not to slight the considerable help she gets from co-stars Morgan Freeman, John Lynch and, especially, Stockard Channing, but Moll is Wright’s star turn, and MGM/UA owes both her and Densham the careful handling this film will require to break out of the arthouse ghetto.

English lit majors might not recognize the story — Densham uses Defoe’s 1722 novel as only the most basic of blueprints, snatching bits and pieces from other historical sources and his own imagination to fashion a picaresque tale, by turns romantic and gritty, of a fiercely intelligent woman forever at odds with her lowly station in 18th-century London. Densham, whose writing here is far better than it was for “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” doesn’t flinch from the cruelty and hardship of the age, and neither does his Moll: No sentimentalized rogue, Moll is a woman who suffers from and conquers flaws as much her own as the era’s.

Densham quickly establishes the film’s deft blend of beauty and grime when the sunny seascapes of an opening sequence give way to the dark, dungeon-like squalor of an orphanage. A little girl is roused from a pile of sleeping, filthy children and dragged screaming to meet the servant of an unseen benefactor. The servant, Hibble (Morgan Freeman), has come to take the girl to America, where she will live with the benefactor, Mrs. Allworthy.

En route to the New World,Hibble reads to the feisty little Flora (Aisling Corcoran) the handwritten memoirs of the girl’s mother, Moll Flanders, with the film flashing back to Moll’s story and occasionally returning to Hibble and Flora’s journey.

And Moll’s story is a whopper. Born to a convicted thief who was hanged immediately after giving birth, Moll is sent to a nunnery where, as a teenager, she expresses her fiery spirit by driving a knitting needle through the hand of a lecherous priest in a church confessional. Clearly, Moll isn’t long for the religious life. She escapes to the harsh streets of London and is taken in by kindly Mrs. Mazzawatti (Brenda Fricker). That phase too proves short-lived: Moll’s charm and good-natured independence make her the target of Mrs. Mazzawatti’s envious daughters (Eileen McCloskey, Nicola Teehan), with tragic results for the reputable household.

So it’s on to the next adventure, and the picture moves into its most vividly realized stretch as Moll, attracted by the “rich and so pretty” glow of a red light, arrives on the doorstep of Mrs. Allworthy (Stockard Channing), the greedy madam of a classy whorehouse. Under the tutelage of the ruthless woman, Moll quickly moves from servant to prostitute, believing she’ll find a husband among the house’s wealthy clients.

But even Moll can’t escape the degradation of prostitution, and she soon descends into drink and despair, her only respite found in the loyal friendship of Mrs. Allworthy’s servant, Hibble. On the verge of suicide, she’s rescued by a character known only as the Artist (John Lynch), a painter who hires Moll to model.

The Artist’s impoverished digs are hardly the stuff of Moll’s dreams, yet his love rekindles her spirit and the two find happiness, however brief. Their marriage produces the daughter that circumstances — and Mrs. Allworthy’s vengeance — will take from Moll.

The film’s fairy-tale ending won’t be unexpected by the audience, but anything less would be out of keeping with the story’s resilience. And even if pic’s attractive look — heavy on the Rembrandt browns and candlelight golds — makes the Age of Enlightenment seem a little too pretty, “Moll Flanders” can’t be accused of glorifying the period. Brutal violence and grim deaths from smallpox see to that.

Nor are the characters the genteel figures often populating such costumers. Channing, in a screen appearance that finally captures the actress’s considerable stage presence, has a fine time with Mrs. Allworthy, a Dickensian character who makes Fagin seem like a child welfare worker. There are moments when the character’s heartless drive actually approaches poignance, but the actress is too smart to give in. This character is a gleefully malicious creation from start to finish.

If Freeman doesn’t impress quite as much, it’s only because he’s played this type — dignity in servitude — before. Still, it’s a sweet performance, and his broken-hearted reaction to the sale of his lover, an aging prostitute, is a standout moment. Lynch keeps apace as the artist who teaches Moll about love, and newcomer Corcoran, although maybe a tad too tart, holds her own in Freeman’s considerable company.

But it’s Wright who holds together the film’s swinging moods, her Moll moving from youthful exuberance to despair and, reawakened by love, on to something between resignation and hope. She’s convincing at every turn, her handsome face conveying a steely pride even when slathered in whorish makeup.

Production designer Caroline Hanania does a credible job of turning Ireland, where “Moll” was filmed, into the chaotic mess that was London in the 1700s. And David Tattersall’s camerawork makes attractive use of such Irish sites as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Dublin Castle. Consolata Boyle’s costumes reflect every shift, from the squalor of the streets to the opulence of a New World plantation.

Despite it all, “Moll Flanders” won’t be an easy sell. Essentially a mainstream romantic adventure with an art-film gloss, picture runs the risk of falling between the cracks. Film’s marketers should work overtime to ensure an ending as joyous as the tale’s.

Moll Flanders

Production

An MGM/UA release of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures presentation, in association with Spelling Films, of a Trilogy Entertainment Group production. Produced by John Watson, Richard B. Lewis, Pen Densham. Executive producer, Morgan O'Sullivan. Co-producer, Tim Harbert. Directed, written by Pen Densham. Story by Densham, based on the character from the novel by Daniel Defoe.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color; Panavision widescreen), David Tattersall; editors, Neil Travis, James R. Symons; music, Mark Mancina; production design, Caroline Hanania; art direction, Steve Simmonds; set decoration, Fiona Daly; costume design, Consolata Boyle; sound (DTS), Kieran Horgan; associate producer, Terri Clark; assistant director, Michael Murray; casting, Ros and John Hubbard. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Santa Monica, May 21, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 123 min.

With

Moll Flanders - Robin Wright
Hibble - Morgan Freeman
Mrs. Allworthy - Stockard Channing
Artist - John Lynch
Flora - Aisling Corcoran
Mrs. Mazzawatti - Brenda Fricker
Edna - Geraldine James
Priest - Jim Sheridan
Artist's Father - Jeremy Brett
Artist's Mother - Britta Smith
With: Cathy Murphy, Emma McIvor, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Ger Ryan, Eileen McCloskey, Nicola Teehan, Birdy Sweeney.
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