Directed by Eric Till. Starring Joseph Fiennes, Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina, Claire Cox, Jonathan Firth, Bruno Ganz, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Mathieu Carrière. (2003, PG-13, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 26, 2003
God help us, we love the rebels. That must be why this biopic about the life of Martin Luther emphasizes the religious leader’s early rebellions against certain church beliefs and practices, rather than his later attempts toward reconciliation and mediation of the savage extremes to which his doctrines were sometimes applied. The narrative focus of this life story centers on Luther’s early life: his calling to God, education with the Augustines, transfer to university teaching at Wittenburg, and growing impatience with the paradoxes of the Catholic Church. Upset with the church’s practices of selling indulgences (get-out-of-hell-free certificates) and its selfish promotion of a vengeful God, Luther responds by famously nailing his "95 Theses" to the church door and thus inadvertently setting off the Reformation. Luther captures a decent sense of the theologian’s ideas and popular charisma, but scurries through the latter years of his life, which cover the regret he had for the energy his ideas gave to the ruthless Peasant Wars of the period and also finds him marrying a renegade nun. In fact, the details of his marriage and six offspring are covered in the movie’s closing crawl. Writers Bart Gavigan and Camille Thomasson based their script on the play by John Osborne, and though it fails when providing a rounded history of the life of Martin Luther, it succeeds in giving viewers a little taste of the other social factors influencing things during the 16th century in Europe. No small contribution to the dissemination of Luther’s ideas was Gutenberg’s movable type, the invention of which coincided with the writing of Luther’s treatises. Luther was also a tool used by the German princes in their move to squelch some of the almighty power wielded over them by Rome. Concepts such as these are touched on, but the screenplay might have benefited from exploring them at greater length and providing more of a secular context for the events it depicts. Joseph Fiennes smolders as young Luther, but it’s a performance that makes you wish instead that his older brother Ralph – an actor who is one of the greatest at being able to portray inner torture and anguish – were playing the part. An otherwise excellent cast has too little to do, although Ustinov tries to invest his Prince of Saxony with a little of the subterfuge inherent in exploiting the popularity of "his" theologian against the Vatican. Biographical complexity is beyond the scope of this heretic’s biopic, but even the pious seem to have a thing for those rebel boys.