"Moll Flanders" is a melodrama of the old school, rife with sin and agony and women in uncomfortable dresses and men in puffy shirts and enough personal disasters to shake up the Sphinx.
No, it's not credible. But it's enjoyable storytelling if you get into the spirit of the film, directed and adapted by Pen Densham, who wrote "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "Backdraft."
Given Densham's credits, the Hollywood treatment of Daniel Defoe's classic novel isn't surprising; in fact, the film clearly says it is "based on the character from the novel by Daniel Defoe." In other words, forget the novel (conveniently, for those of us who haven't read it), which was subtitled: "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who Was Born in Newgate and During a Life of Continued Variety for Threescore Years Besides Her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife, Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at Last Grew Rich, Lived Honest and Died a Penitent."
Robin Wright ("Forrest Gump," "The Princess Bride") gives a respectable performance as Moll, whose mother gave birth to her in prison and then was hanged as a thief. Raised by nuns, Moll flees the advances of a lecherous priest, ends up in a respectable home and, after she takes the blame for a tragedy that befalls her newfound "sisters," is shown to another house -- of prostitution.
Stockard Channing is the hard, nasty madam who seduces Moll into thinking whoredom is a good idea, and household retainer Morgan Freeman winningly portrays Hibble, the man who becomes her one constant friend.
In this lushly decorated setting, there's a scene right out of "Pretty Baby" in which Moll's virginity is auctioned off. Being a prostitute just isn't as fun as Moll thought it would be, but she finds redemption with one of her clients, a nice artist who needs a haircut (John Lynch), who wants to use her as a model.
Her bad times don't end with this love story, however; they simply pause. Without giving away the whole plot, one can say that the relentlessly disheartening story is framed by Moll's version of the tale, which Hibble reads to her daughter. The framing device works well, even if we do guess exactly where it's going.
Moll's strength in the face of every disaster (despite her being, apparently, as dumb as a brick) is engaging as she struggles against the repression of a beautifully re-created 18th century. She'll survive anything. The characters end up on the coast of the American South; look for "Moll Flanders II: The Hurricane."
Pub Date: 6/14/96