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'In Emma's Footsteps' needs to show more, talk less

POSTED June 9, 2018 11:59 a.m.
Josh Terry/

A production still from "In Emma's Footsteps" f...

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"IN EMMA'S FOOTSTEPS" — 2 stars — Shona Kay Moyer, Anne Sward Hansen, Liz Christensen; not rated; in general release

You can’t judge Emma Smith if you haven’t walked a mile in her shoes. That’s the implicit message of “In Emma’s Footsteps,” a film that explores the life of the LDS prophet Joseph Smith’s widow in the aftermath of his martyrdom.

Told in flashback by the prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith (Anne Sward Hansen), Brittany Wiscombe’s film draws on some admittedly scant history to re-create a series of events focused mainly in the first few years after Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed by a Carthage, Illinois, mob in 1844.

Starting with the moment emissaries knock on Emma’s door in the middle of the night to break the awful news of her husband’s death, through continual mob persecution and the church's eventual departure west under the leadership of Brigham Young, “In Emma’s Footsteps” views this transitional period of church history almost exclusively from Emma’s perspective, attempting to correct misconceptions about the widow’s loyalties along the way.

At different stages of the film, always methodically introduced by Lucy, “In Emma’s Footsteps” addresses the controversy surrounding church leadership succession and perceived tensions between Emma (Shona Kay Moyer) and Brigham Young. We see the birth of Joseph and Emma’s last child and Emma's re-marriage after she opts not to follow the church west. And as if the internal pressures weren’t enough, the shadow of persecuting mobs remains a persistent threat.

It’s an intriguing effort, and Moyer is solid and sympathetic in her portrayal of the prophet’s grieving widow. But “In Emma’s Footsteps” is too often undercut by its own execution.

Sward’s performance as Lucy is strong — which is good since she is basically required to talk the audience through the entire film. Her heavy narration sets up each scene with an excess of exposition, even to the point that she frequently identifies the date of the scene she’s introducing.

This wouldn't be an issue if the film could put more of its action on screen, but most of the time, Emma’s scenes are little more than conversations that take place in the aftermath of significant events. “In Emma’s Footsteps” references several crucial moments in church history, such as the public debate where Brigham Young officially takes the mantle as the church’s next leader and the dramatic story of pioneers crossing a frozen Mississippi River in February 1847.

But by sticking so strictly to Emma’s perspective, the film often feels more like a history lecture or a testimonial than a movie, and instead, we get lengthy scenes that unpack administrative controversies such as Emma’s attempt to take over Joseph’s estate.

Part of this — a good part of it — can be attributed to the fact that “In Emma’s Footsteps” is clearly working on a limited budget; the mob, for example, is rarely shown as more than a pair of cartoonish miscreants. But there is still a heavy tendency to tell its story when Wiscombe’s film should, as a feature film, be showing it to us. And without a driving focus, too often the final product feels more like a sequence of anecdotal passages than a directed narrative.

“In Emma’s Footsteps” is an interesting attempt to address one of LDS Church history’s lingering storylines, but its limitations in means and execution keep it well short of satisfying its potential.

"In Emma's Footsteps" is not rated; running time: 112 minutes.

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