The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders is as good as television gets. This adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel has wonderful characters, a rich, historical setting, and a cast that could not have been better chosen.
First among them is Moll herself (Alex Kingston – Dr. Elizabeth Corday on ER), who leaps off the screen, seemingly capable of projecting every emotion. She can make you laugh, as in her memorable confession scene with the tremulous priest: "I hardly know where to start," she begins. She can make you cry, as when she reacts to the hanging of Luci, her true mentor and friend. You believe her when she talks to the camera ("What would you do?" she asks us at each fork in the road), and you believe her when she has sunk seemingly to the bottom, rotting away in the same London prison in which she was born.
In between, she has many adventures. Moll’s one true love (among five husbands, one her own brother), Jemmy, is also played to perfection by Daniel Craig. They meet shortly into Episode Two when Moll, recently returned home to England from Virginia, decides to pose as a lady of means in order to nab a husband with land. Sadly, she falls for an adventurer who himself is pretending to be a man of wealth in order to secure the funds to bail out his bankrupt estate. These two scoundrels are meant for each other, and remain so, even when their circumstances cause them to part.
With Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe wrote a sociological treatise about the seamy underside of British society 250 years ago, seen through the all-knowing eyes of Moll. But Defoe and Moll never preach. They accept the world as it is, and go about their business trying to survive in it. As Moll says after Jemmy leaves her, "I’d lost the love of my life, but the world goes on." She is more than a survivor, though. She is a masterful conniver. After husband #4, a London banker, teaches her about the world of money, she and her thieving companions refer to each other’s occupations as "merchant ventures." They are constantly toasting each other with "Friendship and Free Enterprise," after divvying up their stolen booty.
Episode Two moves faster than Episode One. Moll’s husbands are roughly evenly divided between the two parts. In the first episode she falls in love with the son of the family into which she has been taken as a child, after her mother has been executed for theft. After she dallies with him for a few months, he runs off and leaves her to marry his younger brother. But husband #1 dies, and Moll is left well off. She then finds husband #2, a profligate draper, with whom she proceeds to spend her entire inheritance from husband #1. Husband #2 then runs off to France, so Moll marries husband #3, who unfortunately turns out to be her own brother. She is at his family’s estate in Virginia when she discovers this turn of events, and thus ends Episode One.
Episode Two leads her through husband #4, Jemmy the highwayman, and #5, the banker, with an extra dalliance or two for spice. Through it all we never stop pulling for Moll. The story has a more-or-less happy ending, though more so in this version than in the original Defoe. In both, Moll and Jemmy end up together again in Virginia, but in the television version they are still young and pretty. In the book Moll is already 61.
No matter. At any age Moll Flanders has the energy and flash to keep us interested. This is a wonderful show, well worth watching and taping to watch again.