The plinks and plunks of the more Muzak-worthy themes of Bach and Handel are welcome when piped as tranquilizers into a doctor’s waiting room. But their inclusion on the soundtrack to Moll Flanders signifies one thing: This pureed period piece, coasting on the current boomlet of interest in movies based on Olde Literature, wants to be all not-too-highbrow things to all not-too-highbrow people. This Moll (based, as filmmaker Pen Densham takes pains to point out, ”on the character” from Daniel Defoe’s much less dainty 1722 picaresque novel), is meant to be a kind of generic romp with sex and smallpox, featuring a woman who is poor but proud, a whore but pure, with a liberated sense of self but a naked body: Everymoviewoman! What in fact it is, is literature sapped of acerbity in the service of viewer-friendliness. And as a result, this Moll, written and directed by Densham (whose previous cinematic brush with the book world was as writer-producer of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), is no-brow.
Consider the elements: Robin Wright plays the title role, that of a young orphaned miz who makes her way through rough and grimy 18th-century England mindful of the treachery of men as well as of the freedom money can buy; prostitution, she reckons, will do while she contemplates other career choices. But, steered by Densham’s inclination toward safety, Wright — always an Etch-a-Sketch of an actress, who creates characters that disappear from memory with the shake of the head — turns this spirited dame into a Melrose Place guest star.
Stockard Channing — who can usually be counted on to liven up even the limpest of stories (she was a spark of energy in Up Close & Personal) — here leers, sloshes, and camps her way to nowhere as Moll’s mean madam, Mrs. Allworthy, played as a kind of bleary Amanda-during-the-bitchy years on MP. John Lynch, a perfectly nice actor from In the Name of the Father, makes no sudden movements as Moll’s artist lover. And Morgan Freeman, as another weak-but-empathetic, sinner-but-sage fellow in the Shawshank Redemption mode, plays Allworthy’s indebted gofer and Moll’s ally (sort of like MP’s Matt, but straight).
In such a way, the years pass, the costumes change, the credits roll, and, like a reading list duly ingested in high school years before we were ready to appreciate it, Moll Flanders comes and goes. In the end, only a hummed bar or two of an all-purpose baroque tune reminds us that we were there in the dark with a great book. C