History Lessons

Moll Flanders

area theaters, starts Friday


           MOLL FLANDERS IS chewable medicine. Much in the vein of other recent leather-bound literary remakes (The Last of the Mohicans, Little Women, A Little Princess, The Age of Innocence, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), it wants to reveal the contemporary meaning in an old (and wordy) text, and to find some sparks of action in what seemed more like table talk once upon a time.

           In the bargain, it follows the usual pattern--no copyright to pay for, and an audience so disinterested in the original (though familiar with its title) that it can claim no real loyalty. In this new form of literary adaptation, gone is the meandering exposition--and the sentences which, dear reader, one might willingly and yet forthrightly have patiently abided so as to achieve an ending. In such movies, the high-fidelity crunch of a carriage wheel replaces verbal circumlocution, and the set and costume design hope to be the last, best chance at Oscar honors.

           Pardon my cynicism, but I've seen enough museums and theme parks trying to pass as movies. So imagine my bemusement when Moll Flanders showed some potential in the Lit Classic Rewrite Sweepstakes. Not by any means perfect or reverent to Daniel Defoe's novel, and daringly close to flat at times, it has a thinking cast and a handful of attitude. In this story of a woman who was "a murderess, a whore, and a thief by her own account," maybe the cheekiest thing to happen is that throughout a subplot set in a brothel, the modern-day score steps aside for some Baroque Greatest Hits: Pachelbel's Canon, Bach's Air on a G String (no pun intended), Vivaldi's Mandolin Concerto, etc.

           For a movie whose subject is transgressing and surviving, this musical irreverence is a kind of profane table-turning. So too might be the casting of Morgan Freeman as Hibble, longstanding ex-lover and, uh, administrative assistant to the ironically named Mrs. Allworthy (Stockard Channing), the greedy brothel madam. Freeman's job here is primarily to get the story rolling; he has to make Moll Flanders's newly found daughter read her mother's memoirs before her new life begins, thanks to a mysterious benefactor. Since he's made a minor career out of setting people straight (Driving Miss Daisy, Clean and Sober, Glory, and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves) it seems only natural to see Freeman babysitting a 7-year-old.

           The thing Moll Flanders sticks on, though, is its main character. A 1960s version of this story (with Kim Novak) was called The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, and though I missed that one, I naturally expected some bodice-ripping here, or at least some evidence of murdering and thieving. But Robin Wright is no saucy wench, and writer-director Pen Densham (screenwriter for Prince of Thieves) is widely admitting that he started out with a theme and then went looking for a character, then an actress, to fulfill it. This results in a victimization saga, with Moll at the center. Wright herself is more present in her absence, as an offscreen narrator.

           As we're told, Moll is born in a prison, whereupon her mother is executed. Raised in a convent, she stands up to a randy priest; taken in by a wealthy family, she's a sweet Cinderella. The brothel part comes next, and her on-the-job training is appropriately miserable. But at least this leads to the only happy part of the story: her salvation with the Artist (Irish actor John Lynch). That is his actual name--after all, if the whole thing is a thesis, does he need any more? He sees "what animates our human clay" in her, but then he starts to cough some.

           Sad things happen to Moll, yet she is never wicked or cunning, or the least bit inspired to triumph through anything but innate righteousness. Defoe's Moll was a pickpocket, and there's a rich source of (unused) thematic implications: being secret, illegal intimacies, private greed, etc. So I don't really need the bodice-busting wench stuff, but there was real irony--and not just naked polemics--behind the wall of Defoe's words. Densham's "adaptation" is falsely named because he's doing something other than giving us a literary work. Like a dutiful teacher, he goes for the lesson around every grubby corner. To his credit, the lessons are genuinely interesting. But there's still that good-for-you aftertaste.

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