Rating: *** [3 stars out of 4]
A well-crafted epic uses melodrama to personalize the history of Mormonism.
Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and violence; 110 minutes.
"The Work and the Glory" is a handsomely mounted piece of historical fiction, an unabashedly old-fashioned tale of family struggles during the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Based on the first volume of Gerald N. Lund's nine-book series, the movie introduces the Steed family, farmers starting a homestead in western New York in 1830. The father, Benjamin Steed (Sam Hennings), decides he and his sons Joshua (Eric Johnson) and Nathan (Alexander Carroll) need help clearing their field, so they hire two brothers, Joseph and Hyrum Smith (Jonathan Scarfe and Ryan Wood). But the townsfolk warn the Steeds against associating with Joseph, because he talks about visions and some "golden plates" he found in the woods.
The script, by the film's director Russ Holt, soon sets up a romantic triangle between the Steed brothers and the storekeeper's daughter, Lydia McBride (Tiffany Dupont). Soon, though, Joshua and Nathan aren't just fighting over Lydia but over religion - Nathan believes Joseph Smith's story and is converted, while Joshua becomes a rogue and an outlaw.
"The Work and the Glory" boasts a budget of $7.4 million, a record for a Mormon Cinema entry but a pittance by Hollywood standards. For LDS filmmakers who have been handicapped by working on the cheap, the movie's production values (like Sam Cardon's score and T.C. Christensen's luminous cinematography) and professional actors (such as Edward Albert as Smith confidant Martin Harris and Brenda Strong, from TV's "Desperate Housewives," as the Steed matriarch) are an instructive example of what money can buy. For Hollywood, it's a good example of how much can be had for so little.
The storytelling is earnest and straightforward, if a bit stilted and slow-moving in places. It's sweetly reminiscent of such '70s historical miniseries as John Jakes' Revolutionary War tales "The Bastard" and "The Rebels" - melodramas where fictional characters run into historic figures and think nothing of it.
Among the solid cast, I was impressed with the warmth Scarfe brings to Joseph Smith, a figure usually depicted with such reverence that his humanity is shunted aside. Scarfe's performance is indicative of what "The Work and the Glory" (and, one hopes, its potential sequels) can do best: Make the dry facts of Mormon history spring to life.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
THE WORK AND THE GLORY - ** 1/2 - Alexander Carroll, Eric Johnson, Tiffany Dupont; rated PG (violence, vulgarity); Carmike 12 and Ritz 15 Theaters; Century Theatres 16; Cinemark Jordan Landing Theaters; Cinestar 5-Star and Gateway 8 Cinemas; Megaplex 12 at the Gateway; Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons; Westates Holladay Centre Cinemas 6.
Of all the movies that have been produced in the current local LDS filmmaking movement, "The Work and the Glory" certainly looks the best and appears to be the most accomplished.
Credit for much of that should go to veteran local cinematographer T.C. Christensen and his crew, whose wondrous photography not only makes the film look terrific but also acts as the film's best asset.
But with improved production values also come high expectations, especially in terms of storytelling. So when the plotting and a few of the performances are just so-so, it's hard not to think of the film as at least a bit of a disappointment.
Though it bears the title of the book's entire series, "The Work and the Glory" film is actually based on the first volume in that series, which is subtitled "Pillar of Light." Written by LDS Church general authority Gerald N. Lund, the best-selling novel's weave fictional stories around real-life LDS Church history.
This film -- the first of a projected series of nine -- is set in the 1820s and is told from the perspective of the Steeds, a family of farmers who move from Vermont to Palmyra, N.Y.
There, the two oldest sons, Joshua and Nathan (Eric Johnson and Alexander Carroll), squabble over the affections of Lydia McBride (Tiffany Dupont), the daughter of a wealthy local resident.
They also come to blows over one of the workers hired by their father to help clear their land, Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe). While Nathan believes Joseph's seemingly wild claims about angelic visitations, Joshua joins with other townspeople who have shunned Joseph and his family.
Screenwriter/director Russ Holt has clearly had to leave a lot of material out in adapting "Pillar of Light." Condensing Lund's 400-plus-page novel to an under-two-hours movie has left an episodic feel, and the pacing is a little jumpy and disjointed.
Also, the main story line about Joshua and Nathan's rivalry over Lydia comes off as the least interesting, and it's resolved much too easily and without much emotion. And neither Carroll nor Dupont really has the presence to command audience attention. They're good-looking but also sort of bland.
By comparison, the subplot involving Joseph Smith and his attempts to start what would become the LDS Church is much more compelling and watchable. A lot of that has to do with the performance by Scarfe, who definitely has big-screen presence.
And so do veteran television actors Sam Hennings and Brenda Strong (who narrates ABC's "Desperate Housewives"), playing the Steed parents.
"The Work and the Glory" is rated PG for a couple of scenes of violence (a scuffle and a beating), as well as some vulgar moments involving bodily functions (belching). Running time: 108 minutes.
Joshua Steed (Eric Johnson) watches his father, Benjamin Steed (Sam Hennings), and brother Nathan Steed (Alexander Carroll) work on farm.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
It's just another movie. Yeah, right.
Just ask the former film critic of the Sicilian Sentinel after he second-guessed Coppola on "The Godfather." You can't -- he's not been heard from since.
Not that I'm worried I'll end up wearing cement wingtips, but I know "The Work and the Glory" is getting a lot of local attention, and I want to make sure I have all my gulls in a row.
Here's the deal. It's a beautifully shot movie. There may be only a handful of Hollywood cinematographers who could make a film look this good on any budget, much less $7.4 million. My hat's off to T.C. Christensen, director of photography, a true artist.
It's a beautifully sounding movie. Sam Cardon's score is off the charts. You couldn't ask for a more rousing soundtrack to accompany those lovely pictures.
The problem is the screenplay. It's too surface-y, melodramatic and slowly paced.
The first half of the film seems to focus on the Joshua Steed character and his love for Lydia. But Eric Johnson does such a good job infusing Joshua with vitality that, when he ends up having problems with his father and turning to the dark side, you really miss his presence.
Poor Joshua virtually disappears into the shadows with an almost cartoon-like beard and villainous disposition, without so much as a "This isn't over, little brother" -- thus punishing those who haven't read the books.
Suddenly, you realize that it's the grinning Osmond-like Nathan Steed (Alexander Carroll) who gets handed the baton and the girl to go with it. I like the newcomer, but I thought it was too tough of an assignment to go from movie wallflower to center stage.
Which leads to the next problem. Lydia barely bats an eye dumping one brother and taking up with the other, as if to say: It doesn't really matter -- any Steed will do.
The whole thing felt like a superficial high school crush, from Joshua's pouting to Nathan's out-of-the-blue advances to, dare I say, Lydia's thoughtless flip-flopping.
And while we're on the subject of Lydia -- Tiffany Dupont is just too striking and modern-looking to pull off the little-girl-on-the-prairie bit. Maybe if she'd fallen off a gypsy's wagon and was adopted, we could buy her storekeeper parents. Otherwise, no way.
It turns out mixing Joseph Smith with the Steed family saga had an unexpected outcome. The guy who played Joseph Smith, Jonathan Scarfe, was so charismatic with that impish swagger that I actually was hoping we'd see and hear more of him.
The stick-pulling scene, the stump-removal moments and the "get the gold" sequences were some of the more engaging in the movie, although the "bad-boy" Murdocks were so laughably over-the-top, I was waiting for one of them to say, "Let's tie old Crazy Joe to the railroad tracks."
I did like the touches of levity with the wisecracking old aunt and the little "egg-hausted" Steed boy, plus I thought Mama, Papa and Melissa Steed (Brenda Strong, Sam Hennings and Brighton Hertford) were all solid performers.
But if the filmmakers had really wanted a crossover audience, they should have been more subtle with the telling of the visitations, the translation of the Gold Plates and the "ask of God" segments. They frankly felt a little too "visitor center-esque" and less historical in nature.
Think about it. Mormons already know the Joseph Smith story, so the film is preaching to the choir, which is fine. But I think it might come off as a bit too heavy-handed for curiosity-seekers hoping to get their first glimpse at the origin of Mormonism. It'll likely scare them away.
So I am giving "The Work and the Glory" a recommendation for an LDS audience, especially those who have enjoyed reading the Gerald Lund series, but outside of the culture? I think it will be a much tougher sell.
THE FILM: 'The Work and the Glory'
OUR RATING: ** 1/2
STARRING: Alexander Carroll, Sam Hennings, Brenda Strong, Tiffany Dupont, Eric Johnson, Brighton Hertford and Jonathan Scarfe
BEHIND THE SCENES: Written and directed by Russell Holt ('How Rare a Possession: The Book of Mormon.' Filmed in Tennessee.
PLAYING: North Pointe, Layton Tinseltown, Newgate Tinseltown, Walker 8. Runs 108 minutes.
MPAA RATING: PG
The thousands of people who have bought Gerald N. Lund's historical fiction novel "The Work and the Glory" will probably be adequately entertained by the lavish new film version. I haven't read the book, so I can't say whether it is as overwhelmingly average as the film is, but I think they are probably comparable. It seems unlikely that the book was brimming with vitality and intrigue and the filmmakers just chose to omit it.
This is a film that teeters dangerously on the edge of boredom. It occasionally catches its balance with bright supporting characters or compelling scenes, but then it stumbles again with mild scenes of characters having spiritual crises. It never completely tips over into tedium, though, I'll give it that, and it's pleasant to look at, with sumptuous period costumes and production design.
Based on the first volume in Lund's nine-part series, it is set in the late 1820s in Palmyra, N.Y., where a young fellow named Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe) has gained notoriety for his account of having had a vision of God and Jesus Christ, and the subsequent visitation of an angel who told him where to obtain gold plates on which were engraved the account that he would later translate into The Book of Mormon. Some believe Joseph's story, but most are derisive, and some are even dangerous.
Into this setting moves the fictional Steed family, eager to take advantage of the land rush going on in western New York. They are decent, God-fearing folks, though not actively religious. They hire Joseph and his brother Hyrum (Ryan Wood) to help clear their land, and thus the Steeds become intertwined with the Smiths' history. The mother, Mary Ann (Brenda Strong), believes Joseph; her husband Benjamin (Sam Hennings) doesn't; the children are about evenly split.
Their oldest son, the surly and at first subtly rebellious Joshua (Eric Johnson), falls in with the wrong crowd in Palmyra, drinking, growing facial hair and speaking in an ominous whisper just like the rowdies and thieves who inhabit the local saloons. (In this movie, the more beard you have, and the more you talk like Clint Eastwood, the more evil you are.) Joshua has a crush on local girl Lydia McBride (Tiffany Dupont), but guess who also likes her? Joshua's brother Nathan (Alexander Carroll), who is clean-shaven, speaks in normal tones, and believes in Joseph Smith, whereas Joshua and his cronies just want to steal the gold plates (which they also profess not to believe in, so I'm not really sure where they're coming from, theologically).
At heart, the film is an extremely demure love story, focusing on Nathan and Lydia, with bits of the Joshua triangle popping up occasionally. Lydia's parents think Joseph Smith is a fake and won't let her have anything to do with him, which creates problems for her and the devout Nathan. That, plus the various other characters' religious angst, accounts for a good deal of the film's running time -- which means if watching average people struggle with their personal spiritual dramas doesn't interest you, then you're in for a long night, my friend.
Most of the acting is fine; I just don't think the characters are drawn well enough to make them sufficiently compelling to sustain such an introspective story. Lund had an entire book to develop the characters, and knew he had eight more volumes in which to continue it. Director Russ Holt, who adapted the screenplay, had only 108 minutes.
The most charismatic presence in the film is Jonathan Scarfe, who makes Joseph Smith as personable yet enigmatic as he is supposed to have been. He has the unenviable task of telling the incredible story of Joseph's first vision in a way that sounds sincere rather than fantastic. Scarfe conveys this flawlessly. Even if you don't believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, in watching Scarfe's performance, you can see how others might have.
But in the end, it's more an episode than a movie. It introduces a dozen or so characters, gives them some things to do, then wraps up only a few loose threads before the film's over and we're left waiting for the sequel. Even a movie intended as the start of a "franchise" ought to have self-contained stories, and it ought to convince us that these people are worth watching. If Volume 1 of the book series is as flat as the movie portrays it, I doubt I would ever make it to Volume 2.
(Note: One question people always have about movies like this is how "Mormon" is it? There isn't a whole lot of doctrine, and what there is generally receives an explanation, as it's usually new to the characters, too. But the film is intrinsically "Mormon" in that I don't think anyone who hasn't been a member of the LDS Church for a long time will really "get" why the characters' spiritual angst is such a big deal. I think it is probably a film that speaks only to Mormons, if to anyone.)
Rating: **.5 [2.5 out of 4 stars]
If you've been longing for a return to the halcyon days of sweeping historical made-for-TV melodramas like The Bastard and Roots -- well, here's something, anyway. Adapting the first volume of Gerald N. Lund's bestselling series, writer/director Russ Holt sends us back to 1826 Palmyra, New York, where recently relocated brothers Joshua (Eric Johnson) and Nathan Steed (Alexander Carroll) will be divided by love for the same woman (Tiffany Dupont) and the controversial teachings of one Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe). The much-touted $7.5 million budget does contribute to a great-looking production, and some surprisingly effective supporting performances. Too bad the central relationship involves actors whose prime qualifications appear to be pretty faces. It's solid enough fare at times, but you're still dealing with material that screams vintage miniseries. So congratulations, Mormon cinema: You've now succeeded at matching Hollywood for technical proficiency and dramatic adequacy.
"The Work and the Glory," at 7 and a half million dollars, has the fortunate distinction of being the most expensive project to date in its market, which gives it a certain amount of prominence up front. But it also has the unfortunate distinction of being simply the next in an ever-expanding line of LDS-themed movies to hit theatres in the last few years.
The producers of the new movie, (headed up by entrepreneur-extraordinaire Larry H. Miller) knew that, and came up with a solid way to deal with it. They would hire highly professional cast and crew -- names you might just have seen in your own living rooms on television in recent weeks. And they would spend exactly the amount of money and resources necessary to resurrect the book in its full glory and to market it properly.
Their challenge, as the film opens today, will be to set themselves apart, hover above the over-saturation of the LDS movie market, and continue to expand the influence of the Gerald Lund's adored books.
The movie is based on the first book in Lund's 9-volume series, entitled "The Pillar of Light." In it, brothers Joshua Steed (Eric Johnson) and Nathan Steed (Alexander Carroll), fall for the same lovely storekeeper's daughter, Lydia McBride (Tiffany DuPont.) She is initially drawn to Joshua.
But as the thoughtful Nathan begins to heed the words of the controversial religious figure Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe), and Joshua begins to mercilessly persecute any who follow Smith, Lydia is forced to decide what kind of man she really wants. She's also influenced by the explosion of anger and frustration in her town, and the negative feelings her parents harbor for the Steed family.
The dynamics of both the emerging new religion and the fight over Lydia challenge the strength of the Steed family. Joshua begins to pull away from his parents as he spites Smith and his followers. As Nathan is drawn towards this new religion, he too is in danger of alienating himself from his father (Sam Hennings). An entire community and family is threatened with utter dividedness if they do not find a way to accept change and diverse new views.
The production values of "The Work and the Glory" are stunning. The money is definitely in the project, and it's spent exactly as it should be-with simple beauty, and without the jarring impact of flamboyant imagery. Director of Photography T.C. Christensen's cinematography -- the standout element of "The Work and the Glory"--is a reverent homage to a quieter time.
He spills in shafts of natural light during intimate moments of redemption, revealing each character's most poignant flaws; their careworn facial lines, their worries, their frustrations, the fear in their eyes, their hope for a better future.
Christensen creates captivating images of misty green landscapes and the warm, embracing night hearths of simple homes, and does so with world-class talent.
On the visual downside, Lydia's shockingly bleached white teeth, flashing in and out of every muted, dusty 1820's scene, are a bizarre distraction in what should be subdued, character driven romance scenes.
Director Russ Holt brings the plot a sense of absorbing urgency in its first half, but the urgency dwindles as it becomes apparent that Nathan and Lydia's slow moving romance is exactly that. Two or three books could probably have been combined to squeeze a little more action into this first screen installment; the prolonged romance story just isn't enough to draw into an entire movie. The movie itself isn't too long -- but Nathan and Lydia's romance is.
The nice thing about Holt's direction and script work, however, is that he doesn't shy away from the fervent and affective. And he executes unreal amounts of emotional drama without being manipulative or schmaltzy.
A tightly composed score brings the movie together in a smoothly mixed frontier drama with all the professional production value you could expect from any film. And die-hard fans of the book will likely be delighted with its copious emotional payout.