Review: Mary Magdalene

by Andrew Parker

One of the most passionless films ever made about the foundations of Christianity and one of the most controversial, divisive, and debated figures in biblical history, Australian filmmaker Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene relegates its fascinatingly complex titular character to the sidelines of her own story. Yet another film film depicting Jesus Christ’s final months as a religious disruptor before being crucified, Mary Magdalene offers little new insight or anything remotely sacreligious in favour of a downright sleepy and overly relaxed take on material that has been epic movie fodder since the birth of the medium. It might not be the most insulting, annoying, or preachy film to be made on the subject at hand, but Mary Magdalene might be the most unnecessary and dull version of the story possible.

Davis’ film – operating from a script from Helena Edmundson and Philippa Goslett that’s skipping over some major and unexplained story gaps – at least starts in A.D. 33 from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, portrayed here by Rooney Mara. Wanting to flee from an arranged marriage she wants no part of before it happens, she finds a potential means of escape by following Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix), a man claiming to be the son of God, who has been amassing a large number of believers and disciples along his travels. She turns her back on her family, gets baptized, joins Jesus and his prophets, and leaves her old life behind, becoming the only female member of the group.

Although the film never makes the mistake of portraying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute (an antiquated notion that has mostly been disproven by this point), it does show that this woman’s incorporation into Jesus’ closely knit immediate circle garnered a mixed reception. Trusted advisor Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) worries that the masses will judge them harshly for letting Mary Magdalene travel along. On the other hand, devout believer and family man Judas (Tahar Rahim) thinks Mary’s presence only strengthens their cause and numbers.

Mary Magdalene (which was released last spring in most foreign territories, but saw North American distribution delayed after the dissolution of its former distributor, The Weinstein Company) is a film about the foundations of faith made by people who don’t care at all about the emotional investments that drive people to follow any sort of religious doctrine. In the eyes of Davis (Lion), faith is something personal, empirical, and reasoned, but never based on how it makes someone feel inside. While Mary Magdalene depicts some of Jesus’ most famous miracles, Davis isn’t following the hordes of commoners who find themselves energized by the arrival of the Messiah, but rather the morose inner circle who’ve already  resigned themselves to dire fates. Even Mary and Judas, the most upbeat members of Jesus’ disciples, if one could call them that, know things are going to end badly. Davis’ film is a film about hope told from the perspective of the hopeless.

It’s a unique and somewhat bold move on the part of the filmmakers to depict Jesus and his followers as being stressed and burnt out, but Davis’ leaden direction only underscores the futility of this exercise. There’s little human element to the rigid construction of Mary Magdalene after the initial set-up, with Davis focusing on how dimly he can shoot key scenes in natural light to make every sunny morning and afternoon seem oppressively gloomy, and the script doing everything it can to signpost major biblical events without adding any immediacy or vibrancy. The production design, costuming, make-up, locations, and even the casting choices are all appropriate, but Davis’ investment in the material seems to make a hard stop beyond specific technical details. If a supercomputer several decades from now were capable of producing and directing a movie about the final days of Jesus, it would likely turn out like Mary Magdalene.

The scattershot script and Davis’ fast, but unenthusiastic pacing (two things I never knew could ever happen at the same time before now) do the film no favours, but perhaps worst of all is the fact that the title is a bit of a bait and switch. In the early going, the film is absolutely the story of Mary Magdalene, and Mara does a respectable and nuanced job of depicting the character’s depression and frustration with her lot in life. The second Jesus shows up, Mary Magdalene settles into an all too familiar and uninspired groove, and the film struggles to give her anything to do. While Mary remains a tenuous focal point, all of her conversations with the other disciples revolve around the acts being performed by Jesus and the dangers they face if they continue to run afoul of the Romans. She’s merely another cog in the machine, and the film gives Mara almost nothing worthwhile to work with until until the final moments. By that point, not only do we already know how this story ends, but Mary has nothing new or original to say or add on as an epilogue. Mara’s performance remains consistently accomplished throughout, but with material like this, it’s ultimately a hollow victory.

There are a few notably well staged moments throughout, like Jesus showing some fire and nearly starting a riot or a depiction of the last supper as a wholly downtrodden and low key affair, but without Davis’ four capable leads, Mary Magdalene would be relatively useless. Mara has great chemistry with Phoenix, establishing a subtle intimacy that’s present, but never explicitly followed through on. The actor’s take on Jesus is to depict the holy man as an attentive listener who takes in all the information he can before calmly giving his thoughts, which suits Davis’ tone well, but doesn’t end up ranking as one of Phoenix’s most inspired turns. Ejiofor doesn’t have much to do as Peter outside of looking concerned, but a prolonged sequence where Mary travels with him away from the other disciples is one of the most dramatically satisfying sections of the film. The biggest standout here – and the script’s biggest deviation from “established truths” about biblical figures – is Rahim, who plays Judas’ ultimate and inevitable betrayal not as an act of self preservation, but one based in deep love and belief. Rahim gets the benefit of playing the only truly passionate figure in Mary Magdalene, and he seizes upon the opportunity to give at least one character a unique, lasting impression.

Despite the best efforts of the craftspeople and the cast, Mary Magdalene isn’t the type of biblical epic that either theological scholars or the faithful would ever want to revisit. It won’t tell them much of anything new. Like the journey of the disciples, it’s a rigidly focused, ultimately fruitless quest across barren, yet well travelled terrain. Maybe there are some cinematic aesthetes who will find some natural beauty in Davis’ images, but that’s about it. One thing’s for certain, however: no one who goes to see Mary Magdalene will actually get a movie about Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, April 12, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Mary Magdalene:

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