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The Scarlet Letter

Posted by martinteller on July 6, 2013

I’ll skip the customary plot summary, most people read the book in high school and know the story already.  I read the book in high school, but I think I half-read it or faked my way through it because except for the barest framework (a woman in Puritanical times is branded with a scarlet “A” for adultery) I couldn’t remember a thing about it.  I’d forgotten entirely, for instance, that there was a baby involved.  The Wikipedia entry tells me that some plot elements are shuffled around in this adaptation, but it does not seem to be to the detriment of the story.

Victor Sjostrom is best known — as a director, at least — for his silent classics The Wind and The Phantom Carriage.  This film belongs right up there with them.  The direction is immaculate, cutting to the heart of the drama with eloquent strokes.  Some of the camerawork is masterful, like a tracking shot that follows Hester and Dimmesdale down a forest path, then back again as they turn around and head back towards the camera.  Or the great crowd scenes, as when they all turn in unison to Dimmesdale, waiting for him to condemn Hester.  The shots are economical and expressive, silent storytelling at its best.

Although Lars Hanson occasionally gets a bit hammy as Dimmesdale, Lillian Gish is phenomenal as Hester Prynne.  She lets the sensuality peek through the layers of Puritanical reserve, it’s a marvelously subtle performance.  And of course, the camera simply adores her.

A very moving tragic romance with sharp condemnation of mob mentality and self-righteous posturing in an environment of unhealthy repression and unjust persecution.  One of Sjostrom’s most finely realized works.  Rating: Great (90)


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