At $7.4 million, The Work and the Glory has the highest price tag of any project so far in the Mormon movie market. We mention this so prominently only because the film’s marketers do the same, which raises the question: What does $7.4 million buy?
A professional crew. Real actors. Convincing sets and period costumes. In a word, competence.
This may sound like a backhanded compliment, and it probably is. There are, after all, better Mormon movies made on a much smaller budget. But you only have to watch 15 minutes of an amateur-hour effort like 2003’s The Book of Mormon Movie to know the difference mere competence means to the viewing experience.
Based on the first in a popular series of novels by Gerald N. Lund, The Work and the Glory tells the story of the Mormon church’s formative years through the eyes of the fictional Steed family, who move from Vermont to the frontier of western New York in the 1820s. There they find a town divided by a quiet young man named Joseph Smith, whose stories of miraculous visions and golden plates have stirred up a dangerous mix of hatred and greed, particularly on the part of people who don’t believe in visions but do believe in gold.
The film is not proselytizing. The outline of the Joseph Smith story is there, but specific doctrines are never mentioned. Instead, the central message is one of religious tolerance, a contemporary American value that is presented here somewhat anachronistically.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine this movie capturing an audience outside the Mormon community. There’s a “You are there!” quality to the Steeds’ slow-moving story that requires the viewer to know – and to be invested in – church history. The story holds few surprises: You know pretty early which is the good son and which the bad, and the only real dramatic tension hangs on whether the good son will get the girl or lose her because of his faith.
The only Steed who rises above caricature is patriarch Benjamin (Sam Hennings), a stern man struggling to learn the difference between loving his family and controlling it. The most impressive performance, however, is Jonathan Scarfe as Joseph Smith. The actor, whose roles include no less than Jesus in the ABC television movie Judas, strikes the perfect balance between saintly humility and smoldering charisma, with just a hint of mischief below the surface.
With Tennessee standing in for the idyllic New York frontier, the film is lush with color, and the homesteads, town and costumes are all richly detailed and believable. But there’s also a fair amount of Hollywood cliché, from the sneering, loutish bad guys to the prim shopkeeper standing between his daughter and her disreputable beau. Filled with sunset silhouettes and soaring violins, it’s a journeyman’s movie that doesn’t so much preach to the choir as clap along to the beat.
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