Portrayal of Joseph Smith best thing about latest faith-promoting pic

To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here: “Joseph Smith: Volume 1: Plates of Gold” is making a token run of theaters before it heads to DVD sales at Deseret Book and Seagulls and repeat TV airings on KBYU, BYUTV, KJZZ and on KSL in between airings of LDS General Conference. Alas, there has never been a high-quality film adaptation of the Joseph Smith story with a spiritual edge, and there probably never will be now that Richard Dutcher prefers to make violent thrillers.

However, my wife, Kati, and I saw the latest effort on Labor Day in a North Ogden theater and we were pleasantly surprised. LDS filmmaker Christian Vuissa has made a film that is watchable for its entire 105 minutes or so. “Volume 1″ relates the young LDS prophet’s life from age 21 to 25, from the death of his brother, Alvin, to the establishment of the church. Most of the film concerns Joseph (Dustin Harding) romancing and marrying teacher Emma Hale (Lyndsay Farr) over the objections of her father, Isaac Hale (Michael Flynn). In between the loving, Joseph struggles to translate and publish the Golden Plates which become The Book of Mormon. (Link)

“Volume 1″ is a low-budget, episodic film that painstakingly dramatizes Latter-day Saint interpretation of the beginnings of Mormonism. Vuissa, who has directed several LDS-themed features, works best with light comedy. His adaptation of the LDS fiction comedy “Baptists at Our Barbecue” is one of the better LDS films. He’s not as good with “heavy material” and “Volume 1″ is definitely a film designed to preach the doctrine. The film drags at spots as scenes are not evenly paced. In fact, after devoting a long pace to the case of Martin Harris losing parts of the translation of the plates, the film seems to speed up in the final 20 or so minutes to make sure every bit of history is covered to April 1830.

What makes the film watchable, however, is the performance of Harding as the young Joseph Smith. I must confess I have become tired of the constant portrayal of the first LDS prophet in cinema as a handsome, wavy haired very mellow fellow. I refer to the otherwise decent LDS propaganda film, “Legacy,” as an example of a too calm, too beatific Smith. Harding plays Smith as the man he undoubtedly was, a young, 21-year-old, mostly unschooled lad from a poor family who had gained a bad reputation as a disreputable money-digger and treasure seeker. It’s to Vuissa’s credit that he does not gloss over Smith’s poor reputation, because it is critical to pointing out why Smith’s claims were treated with such derision.

Harding’s Smith is impulsive, boyish, unschooled and passionate about his claims of communion with heavenly spirits. He’s also well aware of why he is greeted with so much skepticism by neighbors and Emma’s father, whose disapproval of Smith conflicted with his love for his daughter and desire she have a normal life. Flynn gives a decent performance as Hale, who commands respect from Smith and his enemies due to his impeccable reputation. Despite Smith’s flaws, Vuissa captures his charisma and his unflagging belief in what he was preaching. Whatever one thinks of Joseph Smith, the success of his movement underscores that he truly believed what he claimed.

As mentioned, this is a low-budget film. In fact, it was played on a DVD player at the theater where we viewed it. Although efforts are clearly made to recreate early 19th century New York and Pennsylvania, the movie set often looks like leftovers from “Little House on the Prairie.” The dialogue is often stilted, and anti-Mormon characters, except for Flynn’s Isaac Hale, are short on complexity. The other major characters of LDS history, Martin Harris, Hyrum Smith, David Whitmer, are one dimensional. And, unfortunately, Lyndsay Farr’s portrayal of Emma Smith lacks depth. Harding evokes emotion and feeling when bearing his testimony as Smith. Except for one scene, where Emma gives birth to a child who dies, there is little emotion from Farr’s portrayal.

However, as LDS cinema goes, this is a better than average offering, thanks mainly to the young actor Harding, who reminds viewers of how young Smith was — 24 — when he organized the LDS Church. Vuissa has produced a film of sufficient quality to maintain what “Book of Mormon Movie” failed to do — generate some sequels.

This post also ran in Currents, the Standard’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.


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4 Responses to Portrayal of Joseph Smith best thing about latest faith-promoting pic

  1. Bob Becker says:

    The dreary record of faith-based filmdom is not limited to LDS films. For a good example of Hollywood leaden handling of a religious themed film, this time from the Catholic POV, take a look at “Song of Bernadette” [1943]. Redefines one-dimensional, and includes some leaden performances from some otherwise good, or at least decent actors. Like Charles Bickford who manages only to be adequate fighting against a cliched script. Jennifer Jones, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb and Linda Darnell make no headway against the script and often seem to be phoning it in. Treacle from start to finish. Inexplicably, Jones won an Oscar for best actress. Go figure.

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