Saturday night at the Odeon West End and expectations are running... low. The Scarlet Letter has arrived in Britain on a groundswell of terrible publicity: no early press screening, ergo no reviews in last week's papers, but many a report of how the film has already been gunned down in flames, both critically and commercially, in the States. If the advance guard is to be believed, The Scarlet Letter, "freely adapted" from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel and directed by Roland Joffe, a specialist in expensive, high-minded epics (The Killing Fields, The Mission, City of Joy), is a big, fat, starry, self-important 24-carat golden turkey.
Demi Moore plays the independent-minded Hester Prynne who arrives in the New World in the 1660s to prepare the way for her husband. After shocking the community with her wanton ways (wearing lace, living alone), she falls for Gary Oldman's fiery pastor and, mistakenly believing her husband dead, has a daughter by him. The elders force her to wear an embroidered letter A on her bodice. But Mr Prynne (Robert Duvall) is alive and kicking; he has gone native with the Indians. Now he arrives on Hester's doorstep with revenge on his mind.
The film's casting is eccentric. Demi Moore as a Puritan? What, Demi Moore, who will strip for a magazine cover at the drop of a camisole, taking her bath demurely clad in a full-length robe? Not likely: soon the robe has slipped off to reveal acres of aerobicised flesh. The closing credits include a mention of "Demi Moore's body make-up artist".
An additional amusement for British viewers is the array of dodgy accents. Gary Oldman's Scottish brogue passes muster (although he's an odd choice for romantic lead). But Duvall speaks with the fake plumminess of an Essex Man who has taken elocution lessons, and Moore seems to have a frog in her throat (unless there is something wrong with the sound recording). When she declines a cup of cider with a prim, "Thenk you, noh, I never imbibe," the first giggles of the evening ripple around the auditorium.
Why, apart from her performance, is The Scarlet Letter a bad movie? In The Piano, another costume melodrama about adultery in the colonies, Jane Campion delivered a stream of surprising images and made every shot count. This is full of otiose pans and crane movements designed purely to showcase the landscapes or the umpteen exotic extras in the background of every shot. Its symbol, hilariously over-used, is a little scarlet bird whose tweeting signifies forbidden desire. A letter suggests itself to sum up the movie: not A, but F minus.Reuse content