Emma Smith: My Story, a review
by EmilyCC and Jessawhy
Armed with a giant bag of popcorn, we went to see the movie, Emma Smith: My Story, a few weeks ago. Since we’re not real movie critics and therefore, know very little about cinematic effects, we’ll stick to our thoughts of the story and characters. In short, from our feminist perspective, Emma Smith is worth seeing but not everything we’d hoped for.
Seeing a movie focused on Emma was a real treat (better than the popcorn). The movie clearly illustrates that Emma gave up and put up with every bit as much as Joseph did. The lack of respect, the lack of money, the doubt—Emma suffered through it all, too. Often, in the D&C or Church history, Emma can often be an afterthought. Emma reminds us that her story is just as important as his.
Emma is portrayed as a strong, independent woman. She snaps off witty comebacks to a pesky unbeliever and men (this happens a few times in the movie) who try to put her in her place as little more than a bystander to her husband’s work.
While reflecting on this movie, the quote about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels keeps coming back to me. I know it’s not a perfect analogy. But, Emma and Joseph shared a life in which they worked for the same goal, but Emma did it without ever (as far as we know) seeing the visions Joseph saw or witnessing the presence of the Golden Plates. Dancing backwards and in high heels, indeed.
And, although there’s not much more detail than an anecdotal story about her second husband’s affair, it does Mormons good to be reminded that Emma didn’t die when Joseph did.
Throughout the film, Emma’s struggles are center stage. We watch her father disown her, her babies die, and her ability to carry on when Joseph leaves (for missions, jail, or death).
But, the struggle that we’ve most wondered about is her marriage. It’s hard to imagine what the real relationship was between Joseph and Emma, but this is most certainly not it. Joseph often seeks Emma’s advice, they are shown taking care of the house together, and she is shown educating him about music and writing. However, the portrayal of their marriage is idyllic and feels false. We missed seeing some real character development between the two as all of their interactions were positive. Additionally, polygamy is glossed over. From memory, it goes something like this:
Emma: There are still places and rapids in the river.
Julia (her daughter): Polygamy was one of those rapids for you. Wasn’t it?
Emma: Yes, it was.
Julia: And, yet, you’ve never spoken of it.
Emma: What could I say?
Maybe this is too big to try and tackle, maybe we should be glad it was mentioned at all. But, this seems like the easy way out.
As the marriage feels too contrived, so does the portrayal of Emma’s inner conflict. Emma played the always supporting, although often despairing wife of the barely mortal Joseph Smith. Her reaction to her father’s anger about her marriage to Joseph feels predictable and superficial. The inner conflicts Emma faced must have been overwhelming, but we never see her doubt. We never see her succumb to those feelings.
Occasionally, there was a bit of poor acting , but these spots were pretty easy to overlook. Emma and Joseph, overall, were both quite engaging actors..
There were also times were we felt like Joseph started to “steal the show.” Sometimes, the movie focused on him for too long, but overall, it felt like he usually stayed were he was supposed to, as a supporting character to Emma.
One primary complaint is that this movie seems to have been made for a Mormon audience. The movie is made up of a series of vignettes of Emma’s life told in flashback (with some parts out of order). For someone without a general knowledge of Mormon history, the plot would have been hard to follow. Also, some scenes felt like they were straight out of a CES video. (Not that that’s all bad. Emily plans on showing it when she teaches seminary again)
Nevertheless, this was an emotionally-charged movie. We both wept a few times. After the film ended, the audience sat in silence for minutes; the emotion in the air was quite palpable.
Ultimately, Emma Smith: My Story, is a nice story and a valiant effort; it tugs at your heartstrings and makes you want to hug a child or write a letter to your mother. But, we believe that this film had the opportunity to be fantastic, with just a little more honesty, and perhaps a little edginess.