The “Work and the Glory” movie trilogy has proved to be a noble near-failure, and the third chapter, subtitled “A House Divided,” is as noble and near-failing as the series. It’s very nicely produced and beautifully shot, and engaging for most of its running time, but it ends things on a remarkably unsatisfying note.
With no recap to help newcomers — you really need to have seen the first two films — Part 3 picks up where after Part 2 left off, in 1836, with the Mormons split between Missouri and Ohio. The Kirtland temple has been dedicated, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe) is learning Hebrew to help him understand the Bible better, and he’s about to launch a bank specifically for the Saints. There is opposition to the Mormons’ presence in Missouri, though not so much so far as to be worrisome.
The fictional Joshua Steed (Eric Johnson), who parted ways with his family after all but his dad became Mormons, runs a freight company in Independence, Mo., and is on business in Georgia when he meets a bosomy young widow named Caroline (Meredith Salenger). He does not mention to Caroline that he has a failed marriage and a child in his past, nor that his family (including his wife) are Mormons now. He wants to leave it all behind.
Of course, if you want to leave your old life behind, you probably shouldn’t bring your new wife home to the state where a lot of your old life lives. Joshua, the new Mrs. Steed, and Caroline’s precocious young son Will (Connor Chavarria) return to Independence just as Joshua’s ex, Jessica (Emily Podleski), arrives there with a band of Saints from Ohio.
The film (adapted by Matt Whitaker from Gerald N. Lund’s novel, and directed by Sterling Van Wagenen) focuses its attention on two central dramas, one historical and one fictional. The historical one deals with Joseph Smith’s attempts to make the church financially solvent — a tricky proposition given that, for all his other talents, Joseph is not a very good businessman. His problems are compounded by some of his followers’ weak faith and very human pettiness when it comes to matters of money.
The fictional drama has the local anti-Mormons eager to keep Joshua Steed involved in their kill-or-expel-all-the-Mormons campaign, going so far as to create a false “manifesto” that the Saints supposedly wrote declaring war on the non-Mormons, just to make Joshua worried. Meanwhile, his new wife slowly learns about his past, while his estranged parents and siblings — including Joshua’s arch-rival, his brother Nathan (Alexander Carroll) — go through their own mini-trials associated with their new faith.
Where the first film in this series was somewhat uncompelling and the second one was a marked improvement, the third falls somewhere in between. The period costumes and sets are still sumptuous, the acting earnest and smart. I’ve come to like a lot of these characters — Jonathan Scarfe continues to be the best Joseph Smith ever put on film — but “A House Divided” frustratingly refuses to tie up most of its loose ends. There are still six more books in the series, you see, and the storylines continue through them. Unfortunately, the handwriting was on the wall long ago as far as the movies are concerned: Part 3 is the last one that’s going to be made. So why leave everything dangling? Followers of the series deserve better payoff than this.
B- (1 hr., 33 min.; )