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Flanders Flounders

Moll Flanders
Jonathan Hession

Friend or Defoe? Robin Wright prays to the muse of screen acting in "Moll Flanders."

Screen adaptation of 'Moll Flanders' deflowers Defoe

By Richard von Busack

DID YOU KNOW that the bloodhound chase in Uncle Tom's Cabin isn't in the book, and was added to the stage version decades after the novel was published? Harriet Beecher Stowe was my great-great aunt, so I have a familial duty to remind the world that she was an early victim of the theatrical bait and-switch of which Moll Flanders is the latest example. It's based on the title character of the 1722 Daniel Defoe novel. I haven't read it--neither have you (did you know it's set in colonial America?), but you can probably suppose there wasn't a scene in the novel in which the heroine laments of how she has kissed so many frogs, hoping that one was a prince.

Describing Moll Flanders as this season's The Scarlet Letter unfairly omits the usual nod in the direction of Morgan Freeman, who appears in a key but insipid role as a bouncer at an 18th-century brothel. Our titular heroine (Robin Wright) progresses from a prostitute to a noble woman, a wife and a mother, thanks to marriage to a temperamental but soulful painter. Moll Flanders takes place in an age of great conversations, but you'd never know it from watching this. Luckily, the film is not a total loss. Stockard Channing is purringly wicked as a cruel madame, and the production values are so plush that they may overwhelm the undemanding.

Moll Flanders also has its share of unintentionally funny moments. There's nothing quite so risible as a grand old theatrical part with an inept actress in it, and Wright is roundly inept, dancing around in the fountain to show happiness, praying on camera (as well she might) and charging with 20th-century grit over the top into the machine-gun fire of her misfortunes. This is a role that encompasses imprisonment, defloration by an old coot, snubbing, shipwrecking, beatings, exposure to smallpox and childbirth--in the deathless words of Thelma Ritter, everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.

Moll Flanders (PG-13; 123 min.), written and directed by Pen Densham, based on "the character from the novel by Daniel Defoe," photographed by David Tattersall and starring Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman.

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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