Ever playing Upstairs to the Downstairs of network TV, PBS goes the tony sex ‘n’ scandal, riches-to-rags route with its fall Masterpiece Theater prestige event, a four-hour romp from Olde London to the New World with Daniel Defoe’s randy 1722 heroine, Moll Flanders. Gorgeously shot throughout England and Virginia by Ivan Strasburg and effectively helmed by David Attwood to strike a canny balance between vertiginous narrative sweep and compelling intimacy, this Granada Television/WGBH co-production offers just enough social commentary to make the abundant bedroom scenes seem well earned.
“Moll Flanders” is great looking and often fun. Yet somehow Attwood and screenwriter Andrew Davies have conspired to leach the blood from its veins. The film is almost wholly uininvolving, a take-it-or-leave-it affair that may have difficulty holding onto viewers, at least until the fairly racy final chapters. It’s not up there in the PBS pantheon of “I, Claudius,” “Therese Raquin,” or even “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
Still, “Moll” offers plenty of pleasures, chief among them a rich, confident portrait by Alex Kingston of a woman born in prison, raised in comfort and married five times, only to end up a demimondaine in the very place where she was born.
Torn from the arms of a convicted mother dispatched to foreign shores, the infant Moll is taken in by the upright Richardson family and raised in relative luxury in Colchester, among sculpted hedges and fawning servants, part maid herself to remind her always that she’s not truly a member of the family. By the time she’s grown up into the perky Kingston, licentious Richardson son Rowland (Colin Buchanan) is waiting on the back stairs to urge her sisterly affections to a different plane, and they embark on “half a year of wicked pleasure.”
“What would you do?” Moll asks the camera, something Davies has her do whenever she arrives at a crossroads (a trick I found annoying). What she does is marry Rowland’s simpy brother, Robin (Ian Driver), who pops off five years and two kids later, leaving the widow to venture into London to seek her fortune. She marries a “gentleman draper” (Christopher Fulford); they burn their way through both their fortunes into bankruptcy, and he splits for Paris.
Husband No. 3 is a plainspoken ship’s captain (Tom Ward) who ships out with her to Virginia (Dramamine alert: There’s lots of gymnastic sex in the Cap’n’s quarters as storms rage about) to settle down with his mother and make babies, praise the Lord.
One day it dawns on luckless Moll that Mom (played to the hilt by Diana Rigg like an earthy spirit out of “Appalachian Spring”) has some very familiar traits; before you know it, it’s hello, Mother! Hesitant to continue sharing the conjugal bed with her brother, it’s back to England, where she marries the scrumptious Jemmy (Daniel Craig, as beautiful as Kingston, with tresses to match).
First, however, she must convert to Catholicism, which entails giving full confession. “Father, it’s hard to know where to start,” Moll begins, getting comfortable behind the screen in the film’s funniest interlude. “So,” the scandalized padre says as her litany of sins unfolds, “you have two husbands still alive, one of whom is your brother?” Anyway, Jemmy turns out to be the love of her life, but he’s also both penniless and feckless. Enter husband No. 5 , a modest banker aptly named Mr. Bland (James Fleet); everything is fine until the bank collapses (and so does Mr. Bland).
Moll descends into a life of thievery and prostitution (along with the obligatory lesbian interlude) before Jemmy returns to carry her off (not quite as in the novel, but close enough) to Virginia again, finally, where they live out their days as rude gentry.
The social fabric of “Moll Flanders” has grown somewhat threadbare, and Attwood and his ingratiating cinematographer get the look right, whether in the unromanticized, rugged Virginia farmland or the London streets overrun with rats. Only Moll herself remains, slightly but irretrievably, beyond our reach.