Movie Review: Jane and Emma

Some topics of Church history are so ugly, so complex and so fraught with conflicting priorities that they seem impossible to talk about in meaningful ways. Racism in the Church is one of those topics. Polygamy is another. Each attempt to examine these topics is like performing an autopsy on a live patient, each little dissection an injury. How, then, can we address these matters, because it is both morally crucial and communally necessary to know ourselves and see as we were then and are now? Melissa Leilani Larson (screenplay, story), Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes (story) believe that the medium of film, the dramatization of historical characters, can bring us closer to an understanding that is both sensitive and sensible. Jane and Emma is their work, a film that portrays the intersecting lives of the freshly-widowed Emma Smith and Jane Manning, a black woman seeking her spiritual birthright among the Mormons of Nauvoo. While the film is not perfect, it represents the best on-screen attempt to capture the complexity of Nauvoo and the staggering internal conflicts these women faced.

First of all, this movie is not history. While it is based on known accounts and generally covers historical events, it takes enormous liberties and has a few incongruencies that historians will not like. THAT’S OKAY. Yes, Joseph Smith was murdered in June, and the film takes place in late fall/early winter. No, it’s unlikely that William Clayton accused Emma –the day after Joseph Smith was murdered – of leading Joseph to his death by asking him to return to Nauvoo. There are many such moments in the film — even though the film also goes to lengths to be historically accurate in countless other respects, particularly regarding the history of Jane Manning James. This film is not meant to be an historical re-enactment. It is a drama, and its purpose is to look at the conflicts, the drivers behind human action, and to raise them up for our instruction and our compassion.

On that level, Jane and Emma succeeds. It deals frankly with racism among the saints, and is unflinching in that respect. The portrayal of Nauvoo polygamy is also very direct, including side-eye from sister wives and Emma’s brutal views of the younger women capturing Joseph’s favor. Frankly, I am unsure whether Emma was as kind, charming and egalitarian as she is portrayed to be in the film. Jane’s story is one of utter heartbreak, and even the offer of ritual sealing adoption into Joseph’s family is frankly addressed as a spiritual conflict, causing Jane to wonder if performing such a ritual would imply abandoning any of her family. Emma’s response to this — “I don’t rightly know” — illustrates, fairly and honestly, how some of the Nauvoo ritual proceedings outstripped the saints’ ability to understand potential earthly and heavenly implications. Jane is shown as a visionary woman, a prophetess in her own right, but one who has her (literal) long night of the soul where she does not know what to do, who to follow or if, in her words, “is there no blessing for me?”

The key actors, Danielle Deadwyler (Jane) and Emily Goss (Emma) are terrific. The supporting cast is a little more hit-and-miss, but serviceable. Mormon filmmakers continue in the elusive quest to find an on-screen Joseph Smith who isn’t creepy. This film’s Joseph is…. yeah, he’s creepy. Lots of slow blinking and spouting spiritual maxims, but at the same time the interplay between him and Emma seemed more real and personal than any past depiction I can recall. K. Danor Gerald does well as Isaac James, showing a devotion to Jane that comes off as genuine on-screen.

Ultimately, this is a Mormon movie and will be difficult for non-members to fully appreciate. It speaks in some shorthand and deals with a time period that is of highly specific interest. But film’s broader theme, that all are alike unto God, should appeal to all. The depiction of a sisterhood tested by the worst of times is glorious in its difficult, thorny complexity. I hope the film gets broader attention outside of Utah. We need more opportunities to witness our unanswerable history and sit, if only for a moment, with those who struggle to answer the conflict between a faith they trust surrounded by a world of betrayal. In this respect, Jane and Emma compels us to follow the scripture and mourn with those who mourn. We are better because of it.

Comments

  1. Rachel E O says:

    Thanks for the review — I’m beyond excited to see this film. One question: I’ve been following a lot of the press and publicity surrounding the movie, but I have yet to read anything about how Brigham Young is addressed in the film and whether or not the split between Emma and Brigham and attendant implications for Jane are dealt with in the movie. (Is the dude that Joseph tells off in one of the trailers Brigham Young?) I know I’m asking for a spoiler here, but I live on the East Coast and may not get to see the movie anytime soon, so the suspense is really killing me.

  2. Excellent review, Steve. I look forward to being able to see this film someday.

    Mormon filmmakers continue in the elusive quest to find an on-screen Joseph Smith who isn’t creepy. This film’s Joseph is…. yeah, he’s creepy.

    Honestly, we need to just own this. Of course Joseph as creepy! He was a weirdo frontier prophet, not a kindly business-suit-wearing octogenarian organization grandpa. As long as we can find an actor who can do charisma and pathos, the creepiness is just part of the package, I think.

  3. It sounds fascinating. I doubt it will make it to Chicago theaters, but I definitely look forward to seeing it once it’s on DVD! Thanks for the review.

  4. Re: creepy Josephs, I still maintain that Vincent Price played the best on-screen Joseph Smith, and that Gene Wilder could have pulled it off.

  5. I liked this JS better than most I’ve seen depicted in film, honestly.

    Danielle Deadwyler is absolutely outstanding in this film. A powerful, compelling performance all the way through.

  6. ^^ You’re understanding is incorrect

  7. JKC, thank you for reminding there is a Vincent Price performance as Joseph Smith out there. Just tracked down a copy. Can you imagine Gene Wilder delivering the King Follett Sermon? That would be interesting to say the least.

    Steve, thanks for this review. It increases my interest in the film. I definitely hope to see it. Hopefully it finds its way to the Midwest via limited release or digital rental.

  8. Good for families with little kids??

  9. Aside from the psychedelic aesthetic, I think Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka comes pretty close to what a good portrayal of Joseph Smith would look like.

  10. I’m assuming the filming took place in late fall or winter because Nauvoo is teeming with tourists during the summer. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, look elsewhere. But as a film addressing a difficult issue or two, this is a good effort. And no, it’s not for little kids. It’s dark and troubling.

  11. Wally, from what I googled it seemed the filming took place in SLC. Correct me if I am wrong.

  12. Roy: It’s possible some interiors were shot in SLC. Many of the exteriors are definitely in Nauvoo. I suspect these shots are as limited as they are, though, because Nauvoo today looks nothing like Nauvoo in the 1840s.

    Rachel: Brigham Young is not in the film. It takes place almost entirely on the night of Joseph Smith’s death, with some flashbacks to Jane’s interactions with Joseph and Emma in the year prior. The dude in the trailer seems to be an entirely fictional creation, and outside Jane, her family, Isaac James, and Joseph and Emma, the only historical figure with any real screentime is William Clayton. That’s the result of the screenwriter’s stage background, I think: the narrative feels like a play, with compact scenes in a single location and a pretty limited cast.

    The film is excellent. It felt as though to me there was one scene missing that would have made the narrative arc a bit more satisfying. That aside, the two lead performances are powerful and even volcanic; I liked this Emma better than any other I’ve seen on the screen, and Deadwyler is thoroughly riveting. The relationship between the two is textured, complex, and genuine; they feel like real people, which is an achievement, unfortunately, much of Mormon fiction about this period hasn’t achieved.

    The technical aspects of the film are also top-notch. The costuming and makeup are a bit too polished at times, but the cinematography is beautiful and the music quite exceptional. Squires has a real eye for framing and direction, too.

    To follow on a tangent: The best Joseph I’ve ever seen on film is Dean Cain in September Dawn, which is a wretched movie, but despite that I’m still entirely serious. Nearly all the Josephs (including, alas, Brad Schmidt in Jane and Emma, though he’s better than some) I’ve seen on film are solemn and earnest and somewhat ethereal; they speak in pious aphorisms and even their joy feels constrained and too dignified.

    Cain’s Joseph Smith is a little playful and a little cocksure, and perhaps because of that, he’s the only one I remember seeing who has any real charisma.

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