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‘The Scarlet Letter’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 13, 1995

Hollywood Pictures does everything but paint "The Scarlet Letter" hot pink in its dumbed-down adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale of sexual misadventures among the Puritans. While the somber novel explores the rigidity of Colonial society through its adulterous protagonist, Hester Prynne, this toothless retelling explores the exhibitionism of its star, Demi Moore. Thus the picture's period furnishings include Hester's 17th-century hot tub.

An adaptation needn't be as faithful to its source as a dog to its master, but director Roland Joffe ("The Killing Fields") and writer Douglas Day Stewart ("An Officer and a Gentleman") have committed adulteration. Though larded with "thees," "thous" and other linguistic antiquities, this "Letter" has been readdressed to meet idiotic modern expectations. Give them "Moby Dick" and they'd make "Free Willy."

Unlike the elliptically structured novel, the film opens with Mistress Prynne's arrival in the New World. Native Americans, wearing bright beads and fancy feathers, mingle in the muddy streets with the somberly garbed Puritans. Though a member of the European aristocracy, Hester registers neither chagrin nor surprise at the rusticity of her new home.

The local wives, a plain brood, are immediately threatened by the newcomer's beauty. Their dour husbands, on the other hand, are appalled by her unorthodox behavior and undeniable sensuality. The tiny community is especially uncomfortable with the idea that she has arrived without her husband, Roger (Robert Duvall), a middle-aged physician who sent her ahead from Antwerp to set up the household. Surely Satan will take this as an engraved invitation.

Indeed, Hester is soon beguiled by a scarlet bird (the Devil in disguise?), which draws her into the woods, where she spies the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) skinny-dipping. The sight of his pale white bottom taketh her breath awayeth. The next time she sees him he's behind the pulpit and wearing pants, and his preaching sets her bosom a-heaving. Their eyes lock over their prayer books. Clearly the longing is mutual, but they resist temptation.

Then one evening, Dimmesdale brings the news that her husband has been killed by Indians. The sad tidings work as an aphrodisiac, and the pair rush off to the granary to plant a little seed. When Hester becomes pregnant, she is tried and convicted of adultery. Although her judges promise leniency if she'll but name her fellow fornicator, she steadfastly refuses.

After spending a year in prison, where she gives birth to Little Pearl, she is condemned to wear an elaborate initial "A" forever after as a symbol of her crime. To add to her tribulations, Roger Prynne turns up alive, but insane. He had been captured by the Algonquins, who sent him home when he insisted on wearing a dead deer on his head. We kiddeth not.

Disguised as one Dr. Chillingworth, the wacky Roger discovers Dimmesdale's guilt and sets out to claim the reverend's scalp and perhaps reclaim his wife. Conveniently, the local Algonquins attack the village, allowing the lovers to escape with Little Pearl. Dimmesdale realizes that the nuclear family is the Almighty's gift to America and, embracing his wife and child, lifts his voice in thanks to God. (In the book, of course, Dimmesdale had to die on the scaffold, but then Hawthorne didn't have to worry about the first weekend's grosses.)

Oldman makes a plausible pastor, though not even an actor as skilled as he can overcome Stewart's clumsily written, unintentionally funny script. Moore, demure in period garb, wastes little time shucking her skirts to admire and fondle herself in the aforementioned tub. While she does seem to be powerfully fond of herself, it's the reverend she's thinking about. And lest the gentle viewer miss the point, Joffe flashes back to Oldman skinny-dipping in the woodland pool. Those buns again: Now there's a religious experience.

The Scarlet Letter is rated R for nudity, sexual situations and violence.

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