Hollywood continues its raid on literary biggies by moving from Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame to Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Gorgeous Robin Wright plays the murdering, thieving, whoring Moll, and, you may be relieved to know, she doesn’t crib from Quasimodo by bursting into song. The mind boggles at what ditty she’d hum when a priest grabs her breast in the confessional and she stabs the unholy lech in the hand with a knitting needle.
Actually, a tune might have livened up this lush costume drama, which is surprisingly stodgy given the racy subject matter. The complete title of Defoe’s 1722 novel is 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. Defoe knew how to grab you.
Not that Pen Densham, the film’s writer and director, paid much attention. Densham, whose pen scratched out the appalling story for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was merely inspired by Defoe, who is long gone and without copyright protection. That means Densham changed anything he damn pleased, creating a mishmash that is part bodice-ripper and part pre-feminist tract.
What saves the day is the cast. Wright is an actress of beauty and wit, as proved by The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump and, especially, The Playboys. She runs from nunnery to fuck den to true love with an artist (Jon Lynch) who is dying — aren’t they all? — to noble lady of glacial cool. Morgan Freeman remains a marvel, even trapped in the thankless role of Hibble, a servant who befriends Moll when she enters the employ of an 18th-century Heidi Fleiss named Mrs. Allworthy, played with wicked exuberance by the splendid Stockard Channing, who magically vitalizes every scene she’s in.
The film has a framing device — the last refuge of the uninspired — that involves Hibble delivering Moll’s bastard daughter, Flora (Aisling Corcoran), to an unknown benefactor. If you can’t figure out who, your video penance is watching The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, a 1965 Tom Jones rip-off with Kim Novak doing her own damage to dear, dead Defoe.