Blu-ray Review: The Scarlet Letter [Special Edition] | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, October 20th, 2019  

The Scarlet Letter [Special Edition]

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Jan 16, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance is historical fiction written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850, which has gone on to be one of the most highly lauded novels in American literature. While traipsing reactionary puritanical ideals toward sexual liberties, social shaming and public stigmatization, the novel actively dissects the biblical story of Adam and Eve and explores the complexity of empathy. When originally published, the novel was met with praise from most literary critics, and received scorn from international religious leaders for pushing an seemingly misunderstood idea of Christianity and sin. Though I personally find the novel to be overwrought and in need of a good editor, there can be no denying the work’s substantial and lasting impact.

By the time the 1995 film version written by Douglas Day Stewart and directed by Roland Joffe had come about, there already existed nine official film adaptations, fifteen operas, a stage play by Phyllis Nagy, a PBS mini-series, and countless other allusions and references in popular media - this is one of the most retread stories in American history. However, while many previous adaptations of the story played pretty close to the original source material, Stewart and Joffe “freely adapted” the work into an immense reimagined world, brimming with erotic undercurrents and historical romanticism.

Set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1667, The Scarlet Letter is contextualized by rising tensions between the growing Puritan population and the local Algonquian natives. As this uneasy ceasefire continues, Hester Prynne (Demi Moore) arrives from England to await the arrival of her husband Roger (Robert Duvall). While trying (and failing) to successfully assimilate with the local townsfolk, Hester becomes impossibly in love with the young passionate minister, Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman). After news of Roger’s possible death by Native Americans, Hester and Arthur dive into a secret love affair, resulting in Hester becoming pregnant. After Hester is imprisoned for her adultery, the local town leaders concoct as many methods as possible to expose the unnamed father, with little success. Eventually sentenced to indefinitely wear a scarlet “A” on her clothing, Hester becomes increasingly ostracized by the public, effectually devastating a guilt-stricken Arthur. While this conflict brews, Roger is released from native captivity and learns of the scandal - being unknown to everyone but Hester, he adopts the moniker of “Dr. Roger Chillingworth” and plots his vengeance.

Produced on a budget of $46 million, The Scarlet Letter was released on October 13, 1995 to blisteringly critical reviews and a crushingly dismal box office. Eventually securing seven Golden Raspberry Award nominations, and winning Worst Remake or Sequel, the film has maintained a legacy of scorn from filmgoers, critics, and bibliophiles for nearly twenty-five years. Despite the harsh blowback, both Joffe and Oldman continue to support the film in various capacities, the latter claiming “There’s some good work in there.” Honestly, that’s a very true statement.

Though several key plot points throughout the film remain faithful to its source, there are so many dramatic deviations, the term “freely adapted” is honestly the best description. These narrative changes flow regularly between legitimately inspired to painfully cliche, without a whole lot of in-between. The heavier focus on “actual” sociopolitical climates of the colony at the time provides the most vivid background for the story yet put to film - yet it does clash horribly with the fanciful Hollywood romanticism that oozes off the screen at every opportunity.

When the characters are distraught, passionate, infuriated, or just plain happy, the combined cast pull off most emotional scenarios with admirable efforts. The serious critical backlashes which occurred prior to the film’s release in response to Moore’s casting as Hester are seriously unfounded and mildly offensive - she’s solid from start to finish, even if the material she is given is not (the screenplay is absolutely full of plot holes and bonkers characterization). Alex Thomson’s cinematography is almost architectural and geometric in its design, playing with perspective and depth in fascinating ways. However, regardless on how good the image may be constructed, Joffe’s robotic blocking of his actors make the whole affair feel like a well-shot play trying desperately to be a movie; the artificiality is always blatantly on display. These lackluster elements are compounded by Thom Noble’s extraordinarily odd editorial choices, and John Barry’s completely ill-suited score - the final music pales in comparison to an earlier score composed by Elmer Bernstein, who was hired after the filmmakers rejected an even earlier (and unreleased) score by legend Ennio Morricone.

Kino Lorber has decided to keep the passionate debate surrounding the film alive with a new Blu-ray release, though it isn’t putting too much effort into it. While equipped with 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo audio tracks, the supplemental features for this film are almost nonexistent. Besides a handful of trailers for other related releases, the only extra material on the disc is a newly recorded commentary track by Joffe. This commentary is the only reason that this special edition should be added to any collection, as it is deeply entertaining and enlightening to the intentions and techniques of the filmmakers, as well as filmmaking as an art and a business - he even touches on aspects of the film now overly relevant in the context of the contemporary #MeToo movement.

While scholars will continue to debate the efficacy and residual impact of Hawthorne’s puritanical love affair, and Joffe will continue to champion his 90s passion project, there are really no jurors still deliberating on the cinematic pigsty that is The Scarlet Letter.


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January 17th 2019

I dont agree to those comments on John Barrys great score!