Rita Kempley - Style section,
Desson Howe - Weekend section, "Disarmingly pleasant."
In 18th-century England, a mysterious gentleman called Hibble (Morgan Freeman) takes a precocious girl called Flora from an orphanage. Forced into a coach against her will, she's obliged to listen to Hibble's story as they rumble toward an unknown destination. The story is about the tragic life of the girl's mother, Moll Flanders (Robin Wright).
An independent, spirited person also thrown into an orphanage, Moll is adopted as a young woman by the charitable Mrs. Mazzawatti. But her feistiness immediately puts her at odds with her haughty, less-attractive stepsisters. Moll leaves but her fortunes turn from bad to worse. She ends up a concubine in the abusive employ of Mrs. Allworthy (Stockard Channing). -- Desson Howe
'Moll Flanders': Subtle Fields
By Desson Howe
If there's something to be learned from "Moll Flanders," Pen Densham's very personal baby, it's that the writer-director can stand gently on his own. The Trilogy Entertainment Group, in which Densham is one of three partners, produced the overstrung "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," the overblown "Blown Away," the overheated "Backdraft" and the underarmed "Tank Girl." After Blitzkrieg productions like these, Trilogy's "Moll Flanders" feels like a welcome drizzle.
For audiences looking for fantasy without semiautomatic gunfire, over-the-top villains or computer morphing effects, this Pen-Unplugged project is going to do the trick. The movie, which has only a superficial resemblance to Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel (Densham took the heroine but reworked the plot), is disarmingly pleasant. It has a heart-if not a pulse-of its own.
In 18th-century England, a mysterious gentleman called Hibble (Morgan Freeman) takes a precocious girl called Flora (Aisling Corcoran) from an orphanage. Forced into a coach against her will, she's obliged to listen to Hibble's story as they rumble toward an unknown destination.
The story is about the tragic life of the girl's mother, Moll Flanders (Robin Wright). An independent, spirited person also thrown into an orphanage, Moll is adopted as a young woman by the charitable Mrs. Mazzawatti (Brenda Fricker). But her feistiness immediately puts her at odds with her haughty, less-attractive stepsisters. Moll leaves but her fortunes turn from bad to worse. She ends up a concubine in the abusive employ of Mrs. Allworthy (Stockard Channing).
The emotionally hardened Moll develops her only two friendships: with Hibble, a branded thief who has cast his lot with Mrs. Allworthy, and a noble, reclusive artist (John Lynch) who pays her a regular pittance to pose for his experimental portraits. Her relationship with the unnamed artist warms to love, but their affair is threatened by his sudden illness. Moll, who becomes pregnant with Flora, waits hopefully for fate to smile on her.
The movie lumbers a little toward its Gothic-romantic conclusion. But Freeman, who can make himself at home in any role, is a touching, even sexy Hibble; Wright is convincingly tough and tender, as circumstances warrant; and Channing makes a wonderfully steely, believable villain. Also, Densham effectively shows how the seemingly small-scale heroism of Moll Flanders-in this age of intolerance toward women (notwithstanding such female overseers as Mrs. Allworthy)-is practically revolutionary. In an era of daunting hardships and abuse, Moll's ability to survive and move on is subtly powerful.
MOLL FLANDERS (PG-13) - Contains emotionally excruciating birthing scenes, sexual situations and minor violence.
The Woes of 'Moll Flanders'
By Rita Kempley
Writer-director Pen Densham's bloated adaptation of Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders" is even looser than its heroine, an orphaned beauty who makes her living on her back in one of 18th-century London's fanciest bordellos. The film is inspired by the book but not based on it: Only the character Moll survives the translation. Instead, this fusty costume drama itself is drawn from the works of Fielding, Voltaire, Hogarth and other chroniclers of the harsh, chaotic era.
Defoe's Moll was a lusty libertine of the sort who shared a greasy chicken with Fielding's "Tom Jones," but Densham's is a saintly creature who repents almost before she has sinned. Born to a convicted thief who is hanged following the delivery, Moll (Robin Wright) grows up in a nunnery -- complete with sexually abusive priest. After she is beaten silly for stabbing the padre with a knitting needle, Moll runs away and is beset by a series of mishaps.
Eventually, the good-hearted lass does what so many women in movies must: She becomes a prostitute. Under the guidance of the male-bashing madam, Mrs. Allworthy (Stockard Channing), the anemic Moll learns that she could use a little lipstick. Many pairs of pale, sweating bums later, she gives in to drink and despair, consoled only by her friendship with Hibble (Morgan Freeman), the evil Mrs. Allworthy's sympathetic major-domo.
On the verge of death, Moll is rescued by the Artist (John Lynch), a sensitive painter who hires Moll to model. She finds fleeting happiness in his company, but the fates are not kind to our Moll, whose tumultuous life takes her from the grim, garbage-strewn streets of olde England to the verdant vistas of the wonderful (if you don't mind an institution called slavery) New World.
The tale is told in flashbacks by Hibble as he reads Moll's diaries to her young daughter (Aisling Corcoran), whom he has finally located in a nunnery much like the one her mother escaped so many years before. The little girl, who has inherited her mother's spirit, is the movie's liveliest presence, but Channing also has a fine time as the mean queen of London's demimonde. Freeman, dignified in servitude, is just driving Miss Daisy in a horse-drawn carriage.
Wright, whose previous brush with period films was "The Princess Bride," can't quite nail down a cockney accent, which comes and goes like the tides of the Thames. Plus, she had to struggle with Densham's syntax, as in "I realized I was becoming a stone in the comfortable shoe of the family." Even Meryl Streep might have had trouble with that one.
Moll Flanders is rated PG-13 for violence, nudity and sexual situations.