Dramatic and artistic representations of Joseph Smith, founder and first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tend to emphasize a lot of the same details — real or imagined — of Smith's demeanor and appearance. His broad shoulders and strong features. His cheerful manner and confident bearing. His upswept hair.
The Joseph envisioned by writer, director and producer Christian Vuissa in "Joseph Smith — Volume 1: Plates of Gold" has the usual bouffant 'do, and shows glimmers of the typically outsize "frontier prophet" personality. Vuissa's Smith, however, is unquestionably younger and less certain of himself than most of his cinematic peers, who tend to feel as though they jumped straight from 14, the age at which Smith first reported having spoken to God and Jesus Christ, to 30.
It's a powerful choice that humanizes the undeniably young religious leader, who was still not quite 25 years old at the point in time where the movie ends, with the publication of the Book of Mormon and Smith's establishment of a new church. Smith spoke in his lifetime of feeling like a "rough stone," continually refined and shaped by his persecutions, but "Plates of Gold" advances the daring suggestion that his mistakes and failures, including a wholly understandable unfamiliarity with the day-to-day substance of molding and leading a religious movement, also played a part.
Viewers with little or no knowledge of Smith's background and history will almost certainly need some time to find their bearings once the film begins. The first scene is of Joseph visiting the grave of his beloved older brother, Alvin, and the moment is almost comically disrupted by a black-clad stranger's striding into the frame to brazenly rebuke the young mourner for his religious hubris. Good day to you, too, sir.
Details of Joseph's past are gradually filled in, often by somewhat awkward expository conversations or remarks, and the first third of the film at times seems as befuddled as its raw protagonist. Dustin Harding is appealingly anxious and eager as Joseph, however, and the seamless application of beautifully realized costumes, props, sets and locations helps the film hang together.
Vuissa devotes quite a bit of time to the arrangement and early history of Joseph's marriage to Emma Hale (Lindsay Farr), including Joseph's rocky relationship with Emma's father, Isaac (a suitably crusty Michael Flynn). The emphasis feels a bit misplaced at first, particularly in an odd throwaway scene of the young couple hiding in a closet to escape the disapproving notice of a jealous romantic rival. (Huh?)
It pays off, however, in the movie's much more poised second and third acts as Joseph struggles to be a responsible husband and father while at the same time filling his prophetic commission to translate an ancient scriptural record inscribed on the titular plates of gold. Vuissa's suggestion that being a provider and being a prophet could have been equally weighted in Joseph's mind is intriguing, and also breaks the more commonplace pattern of thinking about Joseph first as a religious icon and second as a human being.
There's an especially moving section of "Plates of Gold" that observes the tragic stillbirth of Joseph and Emma's first child unfolding at nearly the same moment as Joseph's ill-fated decision, pressured by one of his most devoted benefactors, wealthy farmer Martin Harris, to briefly surrender the entirety of his early translation work.
It's also sensitively shown that Emma's tireless support of her husband, and the many demands on his time and attention, was anything but blind or uncomplicated. (This with the explosive issue of polygamy still years in the future.)
There are bumpy spots throughout the film. Emma's sneering spurned suitor makes a surprise reappearance, well after it's presumed that we've seen the last of him, a moment that feels contrived and melodramatic. A few minor characters are shrilly one-dimensional — I don't recall whether Lucy Harris's name is even mentioned, but she might as well have a signboard instead of a face, scrawled with the words "I want to see those plates!"
And Vuissa frequently takes the edge off of some of his dialogue by too plainly putting the precise phrasings of historical documents in his characters' mouths.
Yet "Plates of Gold" gathers in its emotional impact, and Harding and Vuissa convincingly show Joseph progressing toward the charismatic religious reformer he would later become. Vuissa has said it may be some time before he attempts a "Volume 2," but "Plates of Gold" argues powerfully, in the end, that he should keep the project on his radar.