1996, PG, 122 min. Directed by Pen Densham. Starring Robin Wright, Morgan Freeman, Stockard Channing, John Lynch, Brenda Fricker, Aisling Corcoran.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 14, 1996
Moll Flanders is as picaresque as tales come, though that's not a word we generally associate with 18th-century female literary heroines. This new screen adaptation of the Daniel Defoe classic about the life experiences of a woman born to cruel fortunes and the eventful turns that shape her life winningly recreates the novel's spirit and realistic tone. Though the movie judiciously trims much of the novel's episodic accumulation, it never lacks for narrative detail during its packed two hours. Robin Wright is sure to gain new fans with her deft portrayal of Moll, a self-assured young woman who fends for herself in an era that presented few social options for those of her sex. Born in a London prison during the early decades of the 18th century, Moll's mother was immediately hanged following her baby's birth. Raised in a convent orphanage, Moll daringly frees herself from the Church's hypocrisy while still a tender youth. Next taken in by a charitable family, her presence in their household eventually stirs unwitting trouble. She makes her way to a brothel where she's further schooled by its mercurial mistress Mrs. Allworthy (Channing). Trading in spirituality for materialism does Moll little permanent good and after another descent, she stumbles upon the love of a good man (Lynch). But this, too, is not destined to last and, once again, Moll is off on her tumultuous path. It continues on this way 'til the story's end, and even at its close, the story packs a good surprise or two. Despite her many travails, Moll seems a very modern heroine. At every turn, she plots her own fate, controlling her circumstances to whatever extent possible. Staying true to the vivid realism of Defoe's storytelling also assists in the creation of a multi-dimensional woman. Additionally, the look of 18th-century London has been detailed with great care by the movie's production designers. Appealing performances make the tale move at a steady clip, although the screenplay occasionally lingers on simple expositions longer than should be necessary. Stockard Channing brightens any work she appears in, and Morgan Freeman once again deserves a nod for his inventive work. As he develops the character of Mr. Hibble, he challenges us to consider the realities of life for a black man living in London during that era. Moll Flanders is a rip-snortin' epic, one told with spit and determination and honesty, despite its sometimes lagging pace.