“Take heed, therefore! If ye sin, ye must pay — there is no escape!”
In Puritan New England, young Hester Prynne (Lillian Gish) has a child out of wedlock with Reverend Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), and is forced to wear an “A” for “Adultress” on her clothing at all times. When her estranged husband (Henry Walthall) arrives in town after being held captive by Indians for years, she must deal once again with the consequences of her actions.
Victor Sjostrom is perhaps best known by film fanatics for his performance as the elderly protagonist of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957); but he was an esteemed silent film director before this, and several of his titles — including The Wind (1928), The Phantom Carriage (1921), and this film — are listed in Peary’s book. Lillian Gish successfully convinced the Hays Office to allow this adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel to be made — and as silent films in general go, it’s among the more satisfying tales I’ve seen. The thematically dense novel is distilled into a series of vignettes which effectively portray both the authenticity of the lovers’ forbidden romance, and the repressive context within which they are each trying to survive. Gish is as lovely as ever, giving a typically moving performance; and while some accuse Hanson of “scenery chewing”, I find him nicely suited for his role as the kind-hearted minister who longs to do right by both his lover and his child. (Both occasionally “over-act” in typical silent-film fashion, but this is to be expected for the era and genre.) Also of note is the fine attention paid to historical detail — we get the sense we’re really eavesdropping on this little corner of society (as when we see a young couple courting by speaking to each other through tubes).
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne
- Lars Hanson as Reverend Dimmesdale
- Fine period detail
- Victor Sjostrom’s masterful direction
- Hendrik Sartov’s cinematography
Yes, as a fine literary adaptation by a premiere silent film director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.