Moll Flanders (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Hens love roosters

Geese love ganders

Everyone else loves Moll Flanders

D'oh. What was I thinking of? That was Ned Flanders. Moll Flanders is a shopping center in Ghent.

OK, I think that fills my cheap-shot joke quota.

Moll Flanders is actually the heroine of the noted novel by Daniel Defoe, although that has virtually no bearing on this film. This particular version of the story is, to say the least, a liberal interpretation. The screenwriter took the name, and ... oh, yeah, the years ..... that's about it. You couldn't honestly say it is "taken from a story by Daniel Defoe". Instead, you have to say it was "loosely based on a character created by Daniel Defoe". The movie itself uses the words "inspired by" Defoe. So don't watch this if you really love your 18th century literature and just can't bear to have anybody mess with it. If you want to see a fairly accurate interpretation of the book, see the PBS version with Alex Kingston, which came out at the same time as the one I'm writing about here.

Having offered that initial sacrifice to the purists, let me counter by saying that the novel is not noted for being good. It is noted for being early. It was written in 1722 and is recognized as one of the very first examples of a full-length story written in prose format in English or any other language. Very often, "first" equates to "primitive". Imagine Edison's first moving images, or Jessica's Lange's first attempts at acting. If you could compare a sophisticated modern novel like The Name of the Rose to Moll Flanders, it would be like comparing A Clockwork Orange to those early images flickering in Edison's workshop, or like comparing Jessica Lange's Oscar-winning performances to her work in King Kong. Those early novels are filled with incredible plot twists, absurd coincidences, a fanciful version of lower-class life, and unreadable prose. 

To give you an example from the novel version of Moll Flanders, after much adversity, our heroine finds happiness and a blissful life in America, only to lose it when she discovers that her husband is really her own brother, and she ends up back in urban squalor in England.  


although the film is rated PG-13, Robin Wright shows her breasts on three separate occasions. It is tasteful.
 That has all been a roundabout way of saying that this movie doesn't really have much to do with Moll Flanders, but that ain't all bad.

By the way, the film follows the now-mandatory historical convention which pertains to all old stories about white people, which is to shoehorn Morgan Freeman into the plot. As always, he plays a wise and compassionate man surrounded by barbaric, conniving white people. I can't wait to see which Norse god he plays in Gotterdammerung. Needless to say, he reflects Moll herself, who provides the only other oasis of humanity in a desert of greedy white males.

I don't believe anyone told Robin Wright that she was supposed to be playing somebody in the 18th century. Or maybe they told her it was a new version of  "A Connecticut Yankee", and Robin thought that she was supposed to show how a modern Radcliffe graduate would react if she were transported back in time to 1700, and had to live her life as Moll Flanders, but could remember only a few minor details from reading the story for her undergraduate class in Survey of the Novel. 

That is not criticism of Wright, because it seems to have been the author's intention, but she portrays a very cold, aloof Moll. I don't think she smiled in the entire film. Unlike Alexandra Kingston, who brought an approachable warmth to the character (or Kim Novak, who made it a sex kitten), Wright decided that her Molly was a serious human being and that 18th century men would have to appreciate her for her inner strength and integrity, and not her likeability. I'm sure you can guess how much use the guys in 1700 would have had for a lower-class woman with a dour disposition, and serious thoughts with no education to support them. Whether for good or ill, a woman could not survive unless she struck an ingratiating pose in those days, unless she was rich enough not to care. 

The point of the novel, if it has one, is that the urbanization of Europe permitted people to re-invent themselves. In village life or on the feudal manor, a person ended up with the status they received at birth, the only option being for a very brilliant child to join a religious order. The emergence of large city life changed that, and allowed someone to erase his/her past and create a new identity if he/she was clever enough or ruthless enough. So Defoe's Moll was able to live many lives, and a picaresque novel was born. The problem with the Robin Wright version of Moll is that she doesn't have the characteristics necessary for a woman of humble birth to re-invent herself in that era. She isn't willing to act obsequious, she isn't voluptuous, she isn't submissive, she isn't charming or pleasant to be around, and she has no education to match the men with erudition or wit. Furthermore, she's only average looking, has no figure, and she's not even a very good thief. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • no meaningful features

I think you can appreciate this film, but it will require some preparation on your part. Don't expect it to be anything like the book, and don't expect any of the characters to talk or think or behave like people in 1700. If you just watch the movie as a revisionist period yarn about a history that might have been, and ignore the fact that the title sounds familiar, you'll find that it isn't so bad. 

The only real flaw I found is that, unlike the Kim Novak version of Moll Flanders, which suffered from being too silly, this one suffers from being too serious, and that can be tedious in a long, picaresque story. In vignette after vignette, Moll encounters adversity, but her spirit endures because they can bend her but not break her. Repeat several times until baked to a golden brown. 

But I warn you, don't watch it after wine and a heavy meal and expect to stay awake.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4 , 2/4, Maltin 2.5/4

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 70% good reviews.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.7, which seems about right to me.
  • With their dollars ... A bomb. It grossed only $3 million, and must have cost many times that amount.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. Good cast, beautiful costumes and scenery, especially the sailing scenes. Period film addicts will find it average. If you don't like period films, this will not be the one to change your mind.

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