Many viewers will be familiar with the name Daniel Defoe for his creation of the archetypal castaway, Robinson Crusoe, which has been brought to film dozens of times. But this eighteenth-century novelist wrote a number of other famous works as well, the most notable of which is Moll Flanders, or to give it its full title, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders. Oddly, only a handful of film productions have treated this novel, and two of them were released in the same year, 1996. One was a theatrical release starring Morgan Freeman and Robin Wright Penn, the other a Masterpiece Theatre television miniseries starring Alex Kingston. It's the latter piece that's the subject of this review... and it's the latter piece that is, indeed, the better of the two renditions.
The original Moll Flanders is what's known as a picaresque novel: rather than having an overall narrative with a beginning, development, and conclusion, the story truly is about the "fortunes and misfortunes" of the main character. As such, the miniseries treatment of the novel gives it the scope it needs to succeed as a story. In contrast, the 1996 feature film version ends up being more "inspired by" Moll Flanders than actually "based on" the book, by the time it's done modifying the plot in order to satisfy the demands of a more conventional two-hour narrative. Not that it's a bad film, but it's a good example of a production that is unable to handle the original material.
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, on the other hand, steps boldly forward to tell the story of Moll as Defoe did: as a set of linked adventures leading on to a future goal. Every episode of Moll's life centers around her relationship with a man, because in her poverty and lack of opportunities, her body is all she's got. At the same time, the various events in her life are linked by two constants: the constant of change, as no relationship seems like it can last for Moll, and the constant of her determination to make a better life for herself. In the miniseries, this theme is highlighted by the framing device of having Moll herself narrate her story from a Newgate prison cell, telling how she has come full circle from being born in the prison to being a prisoner. The wheel of fortune has turned full circle, she tells us, from the bottom to the top to the bottom again. The question is, will the redoubtable Moll manage to swing the wheel back up again?
It's impossible not to hope that she does. Despite all her wheelings, dealings, and adventures on the shady side of the law, Moll is an eminently likeable character. Alex Kingston does an excellent job in the title role, bringing out the toughness of Moll's character as well as the more vulnerable side. She's not invulnerable to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," but despite feeling pain and hopelessness, she never gives up.
Moll Flanders can't help but be a bawdy story, given that sex, sex, and more sex are how Moll raises her station in life, but the Masterpiece Theatre production keeps the tone right: it's all part of the great adventure that is Moll's life. Moll is unashamed of who she is, and for good reason. Born to a mother waiting to be hung for petty thievery, raised by gypsies, and living in a world hypocritically ready to condemn a woman for being as sexually adventurous as a man, Moll views the world as a game that's rigged against her from the start. It's only fair that she do her best to tilt things back in her favor.
In production terms, Moll Flanders does an excellent job of transporting the viewer into the world of the eighteenth century, both in England and in the American colonies, where various parts of Moll's story take place. We see the people at both ends of fortune's scale: the elegant gentry and the working classes, high society as well as pickpockets and prostitutes. It's a grimy, rough world, but also a vibrant, lively one, and the Masterpiece Theatre presentation of Moll Flanders brings it to the screen with all of its energy intact.
BFS's production of Moll Flanders presents it in its original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The transfer clocks in at above average, though not outstanding. The image is not particularly sharp; fortunately, there's no edge enhancement to obscure the detail that we do get, and there's not much noise in the image either. Colors are rich and warm; a few indoor scenes take on a bit of a brownish tone, but for the most part the colors and skin tones look natural.
The Dolby 2.0 track for the miniseries does what it sets out to do, presenting dialogue in a respectably clear manner. The soundtrack has enough environmental sounds (horses and carriages in the street, howling captives in the prison, and so on) that a wider surround track would have been worthwhile, but the stereo track offers a solid listening experience nonetheless.
BFS's production of Moll Flanders presents it in a nice two-disc set, with the two individual keepcases enclosed in a glossy paper slipcover. The series is broken into four approximately forty-five-minute episodes, two episodes per disc.
The special features are located on disc one. We get biographies and filmographies of Alex Kingston, Diana Rigg (who despite front-cover billing is not a major part of the film), and author Daniel Defoe. Interestingly, the disc also includes the entire text of Defoe's novel as DVD-ROM content, although I'm not sure how much useful it is; interested readers can pick up a print edition of this classic text at any bookstore.
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders is that happy combination, an adaptation of a classic novel that manages to be both extremely faithful to the original work, and very successful in the film medium. I found it to be very entertaining, and this nice set should certainly have a place in the collection of any viewer who enjoys historically-inspired movies.