Scarlet Letter, The (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Welcome to Massachusetts, 1666, where Puritans, Indians, and adultery come together in Roland Joffe's overlong, overwrought re-interpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic, The Scarlet Letter. Literary purists will be aghast at some of the liberties taken with the original text, but my complaints have more to do with cinematic misjudgments than with those in the book-to-screen translation. And, believe me, there are plenty of problems with this production without having to resort to a cry of "it's not faithful to the book!"

First and foremost is the casting of Demi Moore as Hester Prynne. While Moore has acted effectively in contemporary films like St. Elmo's Fire and Disclosure, she's out of her depth in this sumptuous period piece. Her range is insufficient for the fiery Hester, resulting in the sort of weak performance that occurs when an actor tries too hard to reach a character that's beyond them. Moore's limitations are further highlighted by the powerful, deeply-emotive job done by her co-star, Gary Oldman, as Hester's guilt-wracked lover, Reverend Dimmesdale.

The movie opens considerably in advance of the novel's first scene, and the script by Douglas Day Stewart delves deeply into early events only hinted at in Hawthorne's tale. Much of this background, despite being speculative, works, although it takes forever for the romance between Hester and Dimmesdale to get off the ground. Once we get through the scene with the two groping in a barn, things start moving. When the Puritan colonists of 17th century Boston discover that Hester, the wife of an absent English doctor, is pregnant by a man whose name she refuses to yield, she is thrown into prison until the child is born. Dimmesdale pleads with her to let him reveal the truth, but she extracts a pledge of silence from him. Her eventual punishment for fornication and adultery is to wear a scarlet "A" on her breast at all times to remind the townspeople of her sin. However, when her long-lost, presumed dead husband, Roger Chillingworth (Robert Duvall), arrives after a period spent as an Indian captive, his wife's public humiliation does little to sate his need for vengeance, a cause to which he devotes all his efforts.

Joffe, who directed The Killing Fields and The Mission, is clearly interested in the conflict between man's view of sin and God's. This forms the core of the film. Is love wrong just because it contravenes certain man-made laws? Themes of guilt, which are so critical to the book, are toned down in the movie, and the character of Chillingworth has been reduced from a bitter, betrayed man to a bent, sadistic killer. Robert Duvall's abilities are seriously underused in the role as envisioned by Joffe and Stewart.

One area where this movie version of The Scarlet Letter is masterful is in its depiction of the setting. The mock-up of colonial Boston is convincing, and great care is taken to assure that there are no obvious anachronisms. The forest, which is virtually a character in the novel, has its own life in the film, as well. On the whole, this is a beautiful-looking picture, but The Scarlet Letter is in need of more than a nice appearance.

The weakest part of the script is the ending. Aside from straying significantly from that of the book, the final quarter-hour turns this rather lugubrious melodrama into an action film. Someone tuning in late in the proceedings might mistake the finale for a scene from The Last of the Mohicans. In principle, I don't have a problem with changing Hawthorne's downbeat conclusion, but the result should be more thoughtful than this painfully facile, "Hollywood-ized" version.

Credit should be given to the film makers for attempting to adapt a classic American novel for modern audiences. (The most recent previous English-language motion picture treatment was made over sixty years ago.) Unfortunately, poor casting and script choices have reduced this film to little more than a period piece soap opera. The letter placed upon Hester's breast may be an "A", but Roland Joffe's film doesn't deserve much better than a "C-" on its report card.

Scarlet Letter, The (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1995-10-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1