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Scarlet Letter (1995), The

Kl Studio Classics // R // January 2, 2019
List Price: $18.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 28, 2019 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel "The Scarlet Letter" is a unique case when it comes to popularity and the execution of its themes, often thought of -- not so fondly -- as required reading for schoolwork and not usually as a favorite book of many. The ideas of religious manipulation, nuanced morality, and the perception of sin and adultery may remain relevant to this day, but as the years goes by, Hawthorne's lyrical prose and period-bound view of those concepts grow more challenging to embrace. This has been happening by the mid-‘90s during the renaissance of historical epics on the big screen, but not to the degree where a movie adaptation wouldn't still resonate with an audience, if handled well. Roland Joffe, the director of celebrated historical dramas The Mission and The Killing Fields, may have been a smart choice for directing the adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, but casting it-girl Demi Moore as Hester and the script's efforts to update and cheer up Hawthorne's novel have given it the stigma of a poor take on the novel.

Again, Demi Moore dons mid-1600s Puritanical garb as Hester Prynne, who has taken up residence alone in the Massachusetts Bay colony while awaiting her husband's later arrival. While there alone, she develops a strong relationship with the local minister, Arthur (Gary Oldman), yet controls her urges as she awaits her husband. Word arrives that her husband was likely killed by the local Algonquian tribe during an attack, which immediately causes the relationship between Hester and Arthur to shift, leading to what could still be considered infidelity by the colony. Rumors of Hester's misdeeds begin to circulate through the deeply-religious township, forcing the young woman to defend herself and to maintain the anonymity of her lover. While she does so, it's deemed that she must wear a bright red A for Adultery as she goes about her everyday activities, along with enduring other torments.

Without the right person in the role of Hester Prynne, an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter simply won't work, regardless of the costumes, set and production design, or even a great supporting cast … such as Gary Oldman and Robert Duvall. Demi Moore has a distinctly sharp presence that comfortably fits within certain roles: while she's quite fine in Ghost, her teary performance really isn't the draw there, as she better fits the tense, upright attitude of a morally-rigid lawyer in A Few Good Men and the manipulations of a scheming, sex-driven businesswoman in Disclosure. Immediately, Moore gets lost in the pseudo-Hawthorne period language of 1600s America, appearing too modern, polished, and moderate to settle into Hester's archaic devoutness and then breaking it down with sins of the flesh. She never feels like anything but Demi Moore in costume, as if she's someone from the current era who gets magically transported to the past on Halloween.

That's not to say that Moore's the only thing wrong with The Scarlet Letter, though. Roland Joffe approaches most of his subjects with a mixture of grandness and authenticity, but that doesn't come across in how quickly the relationship forms between devoted, devout Hester and the local minister, Arthur. Gary Oldman gives it everything he's got and turns in a quality performance, settling into the conflicted morality and perceptions of his minister character, but the dynamic between he and Moore's Hester feels too rushed and disingenuous once "love" and the Will of God enters the picture. Sure, Hester's impulsiveness might make sense once we've learned about her husband's temperament, but if the time period and the heavy persuasions of the colony are taken to heart, the haste of their romance betrays the buildup of internal conflict that's so integral to the story. Combined with Joffe's desire to linger on shots of women bathing -- he makes sure to capture just a hint of Moore's nudity -- the scandalous affair feels more like a soap opera than an exploration of their moral quandary.

Picking at the differences between a book and its movie counterpart never really ends up being a good idea, but The Scarlet Letter transforms Hawthorne's novel in a peculiar and unsatisfying extrapolation, attempting to stick to the story's principles while changing it up with additions to both the conflict and the outcome. Hoping to borrow some of the Native American spirit that worked so well in The Last of the Mohicans a few years prior, this version of the story exploits the proximity of the Algonquian people to the colony in coarse and one-dimensional ways, negatively and confusingly shaping the tale of Hester's husband's disappearance. This leads to a hectic finale of Puritanical theatrics and "savage" bloodshed, with a drastic change to the conclusion that's more interested in nurturing the shallow tension of the minister-wife love affair than elevating the author's ideas about coping with social stigmas and religious patriarchy. Those fond of the book will be in for a surprise; it's the kind of wildly different ending that I'm sure plenty of teachers get a kick out of seeing in book reports from those who haven't read it.

For all its missteps, The Scarlet Letter does try to reflect the ideas embedded in the source material, providing brief glimmers of intelligence about the scheming of religious zealotry, coping with being shamed for one's decisions and transgressions, and the problems with intertwining church and state. In that regard, Roland Joffe has partially captured the overarching spirit of what the story yearns to convey, especially as the film moves forward and persuasive individuals twist their observations of Hester's life against her with the help of spiritual perceptions. The intentions were good here, they really were, but they manifested onscreen as the background noise in what's trying to be part bodice-ripper and part overtly modern representation of women's empowerment. It's interesting, then, that a contemporary reimagining like Easy A can get those integral points across far better than a semi-classic telling in Hawthorne's original setting. In familiar words, the pang left by Joffe's The Scarlet Letter doesn't have the impact that it should.

Video and Audio:

A slightly above-average, yet mostly unremarkable transfer presents The Scarlet Letter on Blu-ray, framed at 2.35:1 for this 1080p AVC treatment. Considering the previous release on DVD only came with a fullscreen ratio option, this already amounts to an upgrade for those keen on the film. When looked at with a little scrutiny, the cinematography looks every bit of its quarter-century age, sporting harsher grain and dustier, muted shades in many sequences. Some nicer fine detail can be spotted in a few scenes, such as stray fabrics in the garments, feathers on a bird, and the density of a crowd surrounding the hanging scaffolds. Contrast levels are fine, if suffering from age, yielding somewhat flat depth in certain scenes and cumbersome shadows. Other interior scenes are rather satisfying in their awareness of the location's space, from Hester's house to the church and prison. Colors range from restrained to bold and weighty, especially tans and reds in darker sequences, but it balances out. While an obvious upgrade, The Scarlet Letter isn't without its age-bound faults.

Similar things can be said for the DTS-HD Master Audio track, a fine but forgettable presentation of the 1600s atmosphere. The clarity of dialogue is reputable, but also somewhat constrained to middle-range tones and lacking the added dimensionality to draw the listener into the experience. Some niche environmental echoes and other responses tap into a faint amount of surround responsiveness, but ultimately, it's a front-heavy track aside from the scare effects here and there. A few rambunctious scenes of person-to-person scuffles and the pops of guns reach into suitable lower-end territory, but nothing of note. From the music to the surrounding atmosphere and conversations, this track fulfills its duties while reflecting a two-decades-plus recording, not sounding like it was composed yesterday but also staying stable and clear enough to maintain its good name.

Special Features:

Aside from a batch of Trailers, including one for The Scarlet Letter (3:16, 4x3 HD), the only extra we're working with here is an intriguing one: a new Audio Commentary with Roland Joffe. Within the first ten minutes of the track, the director of the film goes full-on in defense of his adaptation, notably the rationale behind its numerous changes -- which he attributes to bringing to life what Nathaniel Hawthorne couldn't say when he wrote it -- and the casting choice of Demi Moore and what he considers to be unfair criticism of, in his eyes, one of the best performances of the actress' career. He even discusses the lengthy bath sequence, which interacts in interesting ways with his comments about Demi Moore's reputation involving nudity in her career. Once he gets some of that out of his system, the track gets fairly drawn-out and explanatory on a meta level, less interested in exploring the craftsmanship of the film and more designed for deflecting two-and-a-half decades of criticism, the thought processes behind his decisions, and historical influence. That's interesting in its own right, and it could've been more absorbing if it weren't accompanied by long swaths of silence.

Final Thoughts:

Over a dozen Razzie nominations (and a few wins!) exist between Demi Moore herself and Roland Joffe's The Scarlet Letter, a film well-known for its disastrous box-office take and harsh critical response. Was the response exaggerated, and did the critical community and moviegoers unfairly leave out to dry a hidden gem that was simply released at the wrong place and the wrong time? … not really, no. Moore remains an awkward choice to play Hester Prynne, which echoes throughout the film's plentiful extrapolations on Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, its attempts to relevantly tie into modern social perceptions and tailor the resolution to something more satisfying and cinematic. By doing so, the core story, the tweaked characters, and substantive alterations are at odds with one another instead of forming into a successful modification of a classic text, obscuring some intentions and magnifying others that feel out-of-place with such strong emphasis. A fine production effort to capture the era and a dedicated, organic performance from Gary Oldman -- among others in the supporting cast -- get lost in the fray here, casualties of a larger creative conflict. Skip It, unless you're an appreciator of the film, as the widescreen transfer and the director's commentary will make the purchase worthwhile.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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