There have been plenty of mediocre historical films made about Catholic history, so it’s appropriate that occasionally one should appear on some Protestant subject, and this biographical film on the initiator of Reformation thought certainly fills the bill. The locations, sets and costumes are authentic in “Luther,” but little else in the picture rings true. Perhaps that’s the result of the fact that it was made with denominational support–which might explain why it simplifies Luther’s intellectual development, air-brushes away some of his less savory positions, and invents characters and events that take things in a strongly melodramatic direction and portray them as sympathetically as possible. “Luther” is a sincere, well-meaning movie, but it’s stilted and ponderous, all too representative of the worst failings of simplistic docudrama. The picture also has a serious problem at its center, in the performance of Joseph Fiennes in the title role. Fiennes is a talented fellow, but his stiff, undemonstrative manner seems wrong for Luther, who was a passionate, virile man, not the brooding mope he often seems here. Paul Scofield’s Thomas More, as reserved as he was in “A Man for All Seasons,” had an inner power that this Luther lacks. And his paleness infects the entire movie.

The film begins with Luther’s famous thunderstorm vow to enter a monastery, and quickly cuts to his wavering celebration of a first mass. His monkish scrupulousness is then briefly sketched, ending with his assignment to a theological chair at the University of Wittenberg. So far, so good: the treatment up to this point is sketchy, but fairly accurate and unvarnished. Unfortunately, things change for the worse just as the conflict between Luther and the church authorities comes to center stage. No real development is portrayed in Luther’s thought; instead he’s presented as an immediate firebrand who, revolted by the indulgence preaching of the Dominican Tetzel (who, as played by Alfred Molina, is no more than a caricature), posts his famous 95 Theses. There’s no indication here of the real purpose of the theses–to engender debate–or of their respectful attitude toward the papacy, nor is the gradual radicalization of Luther’s thought in the Leipzig Debate of 1518 ever mentioned (it might have been depicted quite dramatically). Instead we are hurried through a series of machinations at Rome (with Uwe Ochsenknecht as a Machiavellian Leo X, Mathieu Carriere as a dignified but overmatched Cardinal Cajetan, and Jonathan Firth as the ambitious, rigid papal legate Aleander) and an awkward setting of Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech at Worms in 1521 (featuring a totally unconvincing Torben Liebrecht as Emperor Charles V); the sole saving grace in all this is the canny comic turn by Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince Frederick of Saxony, Luther’s protector. Ustinov does what amounts more to a vaudeville sketch than a performance, puttering about with feigned absent-mindedness, but he retains all his old timing and easily upstages even the sets. (Of course, the actual Frederick was only in his late fifties when the events transpired, not Ustinov’s 82 years, but who’s counting?) But meanwhile the narrative gets mangled almost beyond recognition. The Peasants’ Revolt breaks out, but as depicted here it seems a minor, localized event inspired by one of Luther’s old academic colleagues, Karlstadt (Jochen Horst), who’s suddenly transformed (contrary to the evidence) into an activist for radical social change; and Luther’s own vitriolic rhetoric against the peasants is suppressed in favor of an attitude that’s at best ambiguous and at worst falsely supportive. It’s here, too, that one of the script’s most shameless inventions reaches its conclusion–the character of a mute crippled girl, who appears periodically to demonstrate Luther’s sensitivity to the plight of the poor. Finally the tale ends with Luther’s marriage to Katerina von Bora (Claire Cox)–a relationship that’s portrayed without the slightest touch of real feeling–and his presentation of the German translation of the Bible to Prince Frederick–the occasion for some quite shameless dithering by Ustinov, who milks the scene for all it’s worth while poor Fiennes is forced to look on in a mixture of admiration and embarrassment. The latter years of Luther’s life are handled in a brief summing-up.

Throughout there’s more than a hint of oversimplification–as well as an obvious desire to portray the subject as sympathetically as possible–in this “Luther.” None of the other characters are written in anything but the sketchiest way, and among the supporting cast only Ustinov has the presence to make much of his. This puts the entire burden of carrying the picture on Fiennes’s slender shoulders, and though he works very hard, ultimately he seems miscast and overparted. Among the lesser figures Bruno Ganz probably does best as Luther’s supportive monastic superior, von Spaupitz, but he disappears fairly early on. Of course one can let one’s eye wander from the actors to the landscapes, castles and splendidly-appointed interiors for respite; but with all due respect to production designer Rolf Zehetbauer and his able team of art directors, set decorators and costumers, and to cinematographer Robert Fraisse, that will work only for a while.

Ultimately “Luther” is undone by its textbookish approach and its unsatisfactory lead performance. A more interesting take on the subject remains John Osborne’s play of the same title, which was filmed in 1973 as part of the American Film Theatre project. It’s a highly individual psychological interpretation of the reformer’s character and motives, but at least it attempts to delve beneath the surface, which is about all this film has to offer.