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‘Luther’ tale interesting, frustrating

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LUTHER — ** 1/2 — Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Firth, Claire Cox, Peter Ustinov, Bruno Ganz; rated PG-13 (violence); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for theater listings.

About equal parts interesting and frustrating, "Luther" tells the story of the German monk who founded Protestantism.

If this movie succeeds at anything, it's being as messy as the Reformation itself. There are wildly incompatible tonal shifts. It's psychologically acute here, melodramatically simplistic there, intellectually probing in places, crudely demagogic in others, opulently staged in some sequences and clearly budget-constrained where it counts most.

Matters are not aided by the casting of Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther. Though the "Shakespeare in Love" star can project the rebel theologian's fierce moralism, fecund intelligence and subversive wit when called for, Fiennes is more prone to trembling, perspiring and sobbing his way through Luther's trials with the papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor and dark nights alone with his own tormented soul.

Anachronistic lines such as, "Most days I'm so depressed I can't get out of bed," don't help, either. If this is supposed to be the 16th century in full upheaval, why does it sound like a Renaissance precursor to "Oprah"?

Other aspects of the story are more convincingly laid out. The venalities and abuses of the late medieval Catholic Church are gleefully ticked off, especially as the young academic Luther grows ever more indignant over the indulgence-selling racket. Oddly, though, the key event in the establishment of Protestantism, Luther's nailing of his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door, is staged by journeyman director Eric Till in the most perfunctory manner imaginable.

Other big issues — translating the Bible into German, permitting clergy to marry — are similarly rushed through near the end. Primarily, they're distractions from the fact that, with all Germany consumed by murderous religious-turned-class conflict, Till evidently did not have the resources to stage the large battles and peasant massacres. We only see the charred, corpse-strewn aftermaths.

Still, a good deal of the pragmatic and spiritual debates of the time are stagy but illuminating. And while most of the performances have "pageant" plastered all over them, the still-spry Peter Ustinov puts an engagingly witty spin on Luther's key protector, the wily Elector of Saxony Prince Frederick. Even as his kingdom's going up (in extreme long shot) in smoke, Ustinov's Frederick is consistently amused by all the anarchy Luther's ideas have let loose on the land and in individuals' hearts.

Though historically incomplete and dramatically awkward (John Osborne's play remains the most intriguing staging of this most influential man's life and ideas), "Luther" does whet the appetite for a more expansive cinematic inquiry into what it was all about and what it all meant.

"Luther" is rated PG-13 for some disturbing violent images, mild language. Running time: 113 minutes.