Picks and Pans Review: The Scarlet Letter

updated 10/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel about sin in 17th-century Boston is served up here in a form so simplistic, so Hollywood, it wouldn't suffice even as Cliff Notes. It's more like Cliff Concepts: Meet Hester Prynne. She's sexy, she's a Puritan, and she's about to get in one devil of a mess. The Killing Fields director Roland Joffé and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart seem to have gotten it into their heads that Hawthorne based his 1850 book on the 1993 movie The Piano. You have the same headstrong heroine in a repressive pioneer community, an emotionally tormented lover on speaking terms with the natives and a husband driven loony with jealousy.

There's no piano.

As the heroine forced to wear an "A" for adultery after her secret affair with Reverend Dimmesdale produces a child, Moore does an old-fashioned star turn, almost blissfully unconcerned with acting. She simply sails into view, got up in more black lace than a Velázquez portrait. Oldman, first seen as a naked backside swimming in a lake, is okay as the guilt-ridden Dimmesdale, but he and Moore display no chemistry.

The one thing to recommend is Robert Duvall as Hester's husband, who turns up after having been held captive by the Algonquins. In a laughable scene in the Indian camp, Duvall does a demented dance resembling the lambada while carrying a deer carcass on his head. But even so, it's a great, creepy portrayal of a man corroded by lust, righteousness and jealousy. The movie should be abridged and reissued as Mr. Prynne. (R)

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