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The Scarlet Letter
cast: Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall, Joan Plowright, and Roy Dotrice

director: Roland Joffe

129 minutes (15) 1995
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
EV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Debbie Moon
1666: young, vivacious Hester (Demi Moore) arrives in Puritan New England just ahead of her new husband. She shocks the locals with her independence and her book-learning, but attracts the attention of the young Reverend Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman), whose friendship with local Native Americans are the only thing standing between the colony and outright war. When her husband is reported killed by hostile natives, they give in to their passion - but soon Hester is pregnant, and her refusal to name the father infuriates the community. She is condemned to wear the scarlet 'A' that marks her an adulteress.
   But her husband (Robert Duvall) is not dead. Half mad from his experiences in captivity, he returns to punish his unfaithful wife by passing himself off as a doctor with experience of witch hunting. Soon his manipulation has the fearful, paranoid community searching everywhere for witches - and Hester labelled as the bearer of the devil's child...
   There isn't much in The Scarlet Letter that we haven't seen before: sexual repression leading to hysteria and persecution of anyone who doesn't fit in. It does, however, do a good job of connecting these irrational fears to the very real danger posed by the native population. Surrounded by people they found inexplicable and treacherous, with death or brutal captivity a constant threat, it's hardly surprising that the settlers were consumed by fear, and ripe for exploitation by power-hungry preachers and witch-finders.
   But this insight isn't followed through strongly enough to carry the whole film, which soon lapses into cliché. A patronising voiceover piles on the sentiment without telling us anything we can't see for ourselves. The poised, wide-eyed Moore simply isn't passionate enough to scandalise even the most sedate community, and Duvall could probably play the lunatic witch-finder role in his sleep. Oldman is suitably earnest and restrained, but neither he nor Moore can overcome the convoluted plot twists and laughable motivations. By the time a convenient attack by the natives rescues them both from the scaffold for an unlikely happy ending (perhaps that's why the credits say 'freely adapted' from the novel?), all credibility is long gone.
   Lavish and well shot, the film is bland rather than actually bad, but that's not much of a recommendation. Unless you're a real Demi Moore fan, or reading up on American literature, this is probably one to give a miss.

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