In the golden glow of candlelight, Hester Prynne (Moore) strips off her lacy undershirt, steps into a tub and proceeds to give herself a sensual rub down. The camera lingers on every detail, not least a pair of supple breasts. Now it may be that Puritan women got up to such mischief but, just in case, this film opens with the announcement that it is "freely adapted" from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story - a morality tale set in 17th Century Massachusetts about a woman who has a child out of wedlock and is subsequently outcast from her own community of religious zealots, forced to wear a scarlet letter ("A" for adultery) as an emblem of her wrongdoing while she protects the identity of Reverend Dimmesdale (Oldman), the child's father.
Here, in 1995, we have steamy sex, a Robin Hood-style ending and the whole thing is turned into a bodice-ripper: Moore strutting like a Thoroughly Modern Millie through her New Jerusalem, wearing too much lace, being far too outspoken and making slow-motion love in a barn with a New Age Dimmesdale once her husband (Duvall) gets killed.
Oldman, as ever, is excellent, this time preaching peacenik sermons and trying hard not to sound like Billy Connolly. And, as we've come to expect from Roland Joffe, the film is full of lush historical detail with some Oscar-worthy cinematography. But, unfortunately, that's it, and - as the film gets mired in a subplot about a supposed witch (Plowright) and a comical piece of symbolism featuring a scarlet bird (a canary dipped in cochineal) - it all starts to get very, very tedious. There's nothing wrong with "freely adapting" anything - classic books are oft-quoted, seldom read - but there has to be believability. One imagines that under Puritan law, Hester's crimes were heinous. Here it's as if Moore is merely asked to don a dunce's cap and stand in the corner.
Moore's acting and her English accent are fine - although her Hassidic boy sidelocks are a curious affair. The problem, then, is that she's simply too well known for her glossy cinematic sexploits for us to suspend disbelief. For all the talent on display, this is a waste of movie.