Opens: June 14, 1996 | Rated: PG-13
"Moll Flanders" is a surprisingly solid film considering the 1722 book which inspired it was so fiddled with in the scripting that the credits admit the movie is only "based on the character from the novel by Daniel Defoe."
This film had every chance to go wrong. Conceived, written, directed and produced one man -- Pen Densham, who wrote the sorry "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" -- there was no one around to tell him if he was wrecking the movie.
But despite taking only the very basic framework of the novel and admittedly borrowing from Voltaire and several other classical sources, Densham created an appealing, substantial film with inspired, visceral performances from stars Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman.
Wright plays the 18th Century's most put-upon prostitute. Born in prison of a condemned mother, Moll Flanders was raised by cruel nuns (are there any other kind in this circumstance?) until she runs away in her late teens and is taken in by a well-to-do family as a housemaid.
Forever uncomfortable with the doting attention of the lady of the house and several male visitors, Moll is jealously picked on by the family daughters, who even rag on her generousity and charity.
This brief resemblance to "Cinderella" ends quickly when the daughters are attacked while trying to one-up Moll's charity in a bad part of town and she leaves her benefactor's house wracked with guilt.
She becomes a prostitute and the subject of a frustrated, philosophical painter (John Lynch) who has chosen a destitute life away from his wealthy family. As he uses her to practice capturing animated life (he's been practicing on corpses), they fall in love.
By this time the audience feels for Moll and wants her to see a little joy, but it's not to be. The painter's family refuses to bless their wedding and her husband contracts small pox soon after she becomes pregnant.
Desperate again, Moll is shipped off to America by her ex-madame (a likably devilish Stockard Channing), who still holds some power over her fate, and is forced to leave her daughter behind.
Freeman's character, who isn't in the book at all, was created expressly to find the lost daughter (the slightly too precious Aisling Corcoran) and narrate the film as he tells Moll's story to her child, who sits in for the audience, providing an emotional interest in the heroine's eventual fate -- a fate unknown until the last minutes of the movie.
Densham wisely stops short of trying to create an epic, weaving a tapestry that draws the audience in with the depth of his characters instead of breadth of scope.
The period dialogue is smoothly laced with romanticized lines that sound from the heart and not the page. "I always thought I'd have to be rich to own the stars," Moll tells her painter after making love with him the first time.
Unfortunately some of these lines are lost to some truly bad sound editing, a sloppiness that hurts the film.
Visually "Moll Flanders" has its ups and downs as well. Revisiting symbols like the cross Moll wears and the artist's enrapturing paintings many times, we're also subjected to aesthetically-driven scenes like a picnic at a waterfall and a Renaissance Faire-inspired dance on the beach. The location scouting, while impressive, was a little too successful.
Despite theses technicalities and editing that could have been tighter (there's enough time here and there to wonder if all 18th Century films use the same extras), the characters are alive, and that's what counts.
Moll's heartache and infrequent happiness are genuine and the connection is made -- that's what the audience takes home when the credits roll.
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