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Luther   C

R.S. Entertainment

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Eric Till
Writers: Bart Gavigan, Camille Thomasson
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Firth, Claire Cox, Peter Ustinov, Bruno Ganz.

Review by Rob Vaux

Costume dramas like Luther have their work cut out for them in this day and age. They radiate all the appeal of high school detention, promising to enlighten you if only you sit still and stop squirming. The name Martin Luther -- whose opposition to Christian policies in the early 16th century led to the founding of Protestantism -- ranks up with Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots for eye-glazing boredom. The producers of Luther were clearly aware of this problem, and took steps to make their story more engaging. Unfortunately, they lose track of their narrative in the process, creating a fine beginning which grows hopelessly muddled by the end. Having successfully captured our attention, they're unable to hold it for a tolerable duration.

Credit Luther at least for avoiding Masterpiece Theater self-importance. It makes fine use of various European locations, and adequately evokes the realities of Luther's world. It also uses some fascinating hooks that reel us in without betraying basic history. Much of the credit goes to Joseph Fiennes, who plays the title figure without bombast or pretension. His Luther is a man of wit and intelligence, who comes by his faith relatively late in life and constantly struggles to reconcile it with his doubts. He pledges eternal loyalty to God during a thunderstorm -- so terrified by the lightning that he's willing to consign himself to monasticism rather than risk electrocution.

It's only natural for such a man to question the Church's less savory aspects. Finding himself at a new university in Wittenberg, Germany, he translates his doubts into jaded skepticism, teaching his students to find God in themselves rather than looking to their superiors. The magnitude of that notion can easily be forgotten in the modern era, where religion plays such a diminished role in our lives. But in 1500s Europe, fresh out of the Dark Ages, there was the Church or there was the wolf at the door. To challenge its authority the way Luther did was to undermine the fundamental tenets of society. All he did was ask a few questions; the results shattered the most powerful institution on Earth.

The heart of his grievances is the notion of indulgences: by paying the Church, you can absolve yourself or your relatives of their sins. It's a grand form of cosmic accountancy -- with virtue measured in coin and the poor buying salvation with money they don't have -- ruthlessly exploited by the likes of Brother Tetzel (an underused Alfred Molina) and the leadership in Rome. Luther's clever deconstruction of such practices produces some of the film's best moments, leading inexorably to his famous 95 Theses, which he pens himself and then nails to the local church door. Thanks to the new invention of the printing press, it rapidly spreads across Europe... and a revolution begins.

That all makes for good meaty material, especially as Luther grapples with the unintended side effects of his iconoclasm. Director Eric Till keeps the focus squarely on his protagonist, buoyed by some nice speeches and several strong supporting players (including Sir Peter Ustinov, growing frailer by the moment, but still capable of stealing his share of scenes). The difficulty arises in keeping all the threads clear, and too often Luther sacrifices dramatic cohesion in its zeal to stick to the facts. Many important connections are glossed over, a condition which grows more acute as the film progresses. A peasants' revolt, for example, arises before we understand how thoroughly Luther's words have spread, and a burgeoning fiscal crisis in the Church lacks any real connection to the Protestant reform which supposedly engendered it. History usually develops in such quiet and seemingly inconsequential ways, but as a storytelling device, that subtlety can be confounding. What started out strong peters out in the second half, splitting it into a grab bag of little pieces with no sense of resolution.

The results engender the very restlessness Luther works so hard to avoid, topped by an unsatisfying conclusion that doesn't suggest climax so much as a convenient place to stop. Its efforts are admirable, but it needed a more solid follow-through -- and perhaps another take at the third act -- to succeed at its appointed task. As it is, Luther stands incomplete, guilty of the very attention span it seeks to remedy. Tenth-graders should appreciate it as an alternative to droning textbooks; as compelling drama, however, it still has some work to do.

Review published 09.23.2003.

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