New Harmony: Joseph's romance is believable in 'Plates of Gold'

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 7 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Lindsay Farr and Dustin Harding star in "Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates." Written, produced and directed by Christian Vuissa, the film will play at the festival.

Courtesy LDS Film Festival

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Don't ask me why, but people are fascinated by films about cultural icons in love.

We've had movies about Shakespeare in love, Tolstoy in love, even Igor Stravinsky — the homely curmudgeon — in love.

So it's no shocker we now have Joseph Smith in love.

"Plates of Gold," a film by LDS convert Christian Vuissa, tracks the intrigue surrounding Joseph's translation of the gold plates, but more than that, it's a romance in the classic "two guys and one girl" mode.

The film could have been called: "Three's a Crowd."

When Ernest Hemingway published "Farewell to Arms," some critics complained that the lovey-dovey moments were too, well … too lovey-dovey. But then they realized Hemingway's lovers spoke and acted just as silly people in love do. Hemingway wasn't a sentimentalist, he was a shrewd observer of human nature.

The same might be said for Vuissa's film.

Did Joseph Smith really stand in front of a mirror and pretend to feel the wonder and joy he expected to feel when he won Emma's hand?

Did he take Emma's finger and draw a heart on a steamy window pane?

Did he actually say, "Speaking of perfect companions …"

If he didn't do these things, chances are he did something very similar.

People in love are always a little loopy.

We may talk about love in high-minded, glorious metaphors and plumb the depths of poetry to describe it, but the truth is — when we fall in love — we all pretty much talk in the lyrics of pop tunes.

"Baby, baby, please don't go.

Baby, baby, I love you so."

At one point in the movie Joseph actually says, "Emma, don't leave me."

Joseph and Emma's romance seems perfectly believable.

And pairing a love story with the well-worn anecdotes about getting and translating the gold plates does help to freshen the film.

And Vuissa's decision to sidestep a lot of the supernatural moments and focus on the way people reacted to those visitations was a good choice.

Still, that said, this film also suffers from what has inflicted many similar movies. In the wake of Richard Bushman's dry-eyed biography "Rough Stone Rolling," a well-received warts and all biography of Joseph, writing up his life as hagiography — as the "life of the saints" — seems more of a dodge today than an act of devotion. Here, again, his human failings are few and small. Joseph hardly feels the burden of human weakness that would drive a man to his knees, desperate to redeem his soul.

The true "Hero's Journey" only works when the hero is shown to battle the same ugly weaknesses we all must confront.

"Plates of Gold" hints at such moments of human frailty, but lacks the courage to show us Joseph, the "rough stone," with all his sharp edges.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in Mormon Times. Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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