Affecting and remarkably poignant, director Chantelle Squires’ historical drama Jane and Emma brings a unique point of view to a historic event. The period movie tells the story of the unlikely true friendship between two women amid the 1844 martyrdom of the religious leader and founder of the LDS church, Joseph Smith.
The first woman, Jane Manning James, is a lesser-known historical figure but a fascinating woman with an intriguing story. Born a free black woman, she converts to the early LDS church and eventually becomes one of the first black women to settle in Utah. In a time of racism, she held true to her beliefs and fought for her religious rights.
But before that, she became a close friend to the Smith family in the months leading up to Joseph Smith’s now famous death.
The other woman is Emma Smith, the first wife of the LDS Prophet, Joseph Smith. While most movies about LDS history focus on Joseph, here Emma is front and center and shown in a new light and it’s intriguing to watch.
In the film (and in real life), Emma and Jane become as close as sisters despite the racism and religious turmoil around them. It’s their friendship that becomes the focus of the film.
The Story: Jane and Emma Movie
Romanticism and a Jane Eyre influence trickle into both the screenplay and the production. Like Rochester calling Jane across a great distance to come back to him, so does this Jane dream and hear the voice of Emma Smith calling her to return to Nauvoo. And that’s what she does.
The story is effectively structured around Jane returning to Nauvoo to find the Prophet, Joseph Smith murdered and Emma on the verge of an emotional breakdown.
The story then flashes back and forth between Jane first coming to Nauvoo to Jane and Emma watching over the body of Joseph – in case a mob comes to steal him away. The latter part is a fictionalized imagining of what might have happened and what these two women may have talked about. However, the historical events around them, their friendship, and their personalities are mostly presented accurately as far as I can tell.
Jane and Emma Movie Review
This is a strange but interesting film about a controversial religious leader and two women who loved him in different ways. But more than that it’s about their close bond with each other in dangerous times.
What I loved about Jane and Emma is that it’s a film about women by women bringing a new point of view to a famous moment in American and Religious History.
I also appreciated that this film isn’t mawkish. With religious movies, it’s easy as a filmmaker to trek over into propaganda territory. But that doesn’t happen here thanks to the honest direction of Squires and the well-researched script by talented screenwriter (and playwright), Melissa Leilani Larson. The universal themes and honesty prevail making for a much more effective and transcendent story of spirituality and human triumph.
On the one hand, this is a human story about female friendship. On the other, it’s about the trials of faith and choosing to believe when it would be easier to give up. And ultimately, this is a story about real people choosing to get along and love each other – despite their differences. That’s a relevant theme we can all understand.
So, while the historical setting is the death of the LDS prophet, it’s not a film trying to convince you what to believe. In fact, the movie doesn’t gloss over the difficult history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It does, however, bring a sympathetic and empathetic view to two women from history who have never had their stories told in this way before. And it’s fascinating to watch.
The performances from Danielle Deadwyler (The Haves and Have Nots) as Jane and Emily Goss as Emma are impressive and believable. Deadwyler, especially, embodies the role and brings Jane Manning to life. The chemistry between the two actresses also works. Thankfully, the two have a great rapport onscreen.
Brad Schmidt as Joseph Smith also gives a good performance giving the Prophet a nuanced, human quality. One understands why both Jane and Emma (and the Saints – what the members call themselves) love and believe in him. Though his flaws are not overlooked in this production.
On top of the strong acting from the leads, the dialogue is both emotional and biting, bringing out elements of dark wit from Emma. Plus, the costumes are decent, the set authentic looking to the time and place, and the cinematography at times rather striking.
However, this is an indie film with budget constraints, and it shows sometimes (though not much – so the filmmakers did do an excellent job). While the fantastic performances, sharp and intelligent dialogue, and strong cinematography enhances the quality of the movie, it’s not as professional looking as some bigger budget period dramas. The hair and makeup distract in a few scenes, for example.
Jane and Emma as a film is also a little bit confusing at times if you’re unfamiliar with the beliefs of the LDS church and their history. So, while members of the LDS church will likely understand most of the dialogue, I don’t think this is an easy film to understand if you have no previous reference or knowledge.
This is not a film that takes the time to explain what’s going on. You’re thrust into the middle of the historical chaos and must figure it out as you watch. So, don’t expect narrative hand-holding. If you do check it out, be prepared to look up a few things.
I personally felt this creative choice strengthened the film as it didn’t dumb down the story. But still, some viewers may be confused by a few scenes.
Overall, Jane and Emma is an uplifting, emotional film that leaves you deeply affected by it. These are female characters women can relate to. Flawed, real, and struggling with the tragedies and hardships of life. And through it all, they find strength with each other and hold onto their faith when many would give up.
While this film is not for everyone, if learning about lesser-known women from history interests you, then this is a great choice.
Content Note: PG for thematic material.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime, Hoopla and Vudu. You can also rent/buy on digital or DVD.
What are your thoughts on the Jane and Emma movie? Have you seen it? Do you plan to check it out? Let me know in the comments.
Photo credit: Excel Entertainment