Garth Davis (director)
Porchlight Films (studio)
16 March 2018 (released)
14 March 2018
It’s not entirely clear if Mary Magdalene is trying to tell a very familiar story from a different standpoint, or, as flashed up at the end of the film, setting the record straight. For Mary of Magdala is one of the most controversial figures in the gospels, having been identified as both the apostle present at the resurrection, and a prostitute. And the debates will continue, this film probably won’t convince people one way or another.
We are plunged almost immediately into a difficult childbirth, where Mary (Rooney Mara) sees the mother through. It’s part and parcel of daily life as Mary and the women get on with preparing the fishing nets and keeping house. At temple for prayer they have their place. There’s talk of a preacher in the area and fireside talk of the Baptist, and also of Mary marrying as it is her time to do so. She rejects this causing an incident that prompts an exorcism.
From this we deduce that Mary is her own woman and more than capable of handling herself, physically, and intellectually. This keen intelligence is tested when she joins disciples, and they question her presence and worth, which she engages with and rebuffs. There’s quite a lot of this type of discussion as the disciples walk towards their destinies.
And there is a lot of walking, long lines of people walking, as we are signposted through the significant events and towns through to Jerusalem towards the money lenders in the temple, the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) along the way performs his miracles – the raising of Lazarus is intense, almost demonic - while the healings are the more traditional hands on eyes and faces.
Phoenix has a very grungy look about him and is actually quite good in a didn’t have to try too hard sort of way. Mara has a more difficult role, juggling a woman of faith following her calling but also as an individual with her own convictions, which she carries off well.
This take on the story is the bare basics with writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett concentrating on the disciples and the tensions between them. Though these aren’t taxing philosophical debates more how best to use their main asset (Jesus) against the Romans.
Of the Romans, they are barely seen other than the aftermath of a horrendous attack on a village and the arrest of Jesus. There’s no Pilate, washing of hands or spear thrust into Jesus’s side. Also missing are Judas’s pieces of silver and Peter’s denials, played by Tahar Rahim and Chiwetel Ejiofor respectively.
These are purposeful omissions but it still appears very cautious and director Garth Davis dithers between respecting the customary reverence that pervades these films, or really throwing caution to the wind.
Comparisons usually aren’t useful but for all their faults the two relatively recent high-profile alternative takes on the story; The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ, didn’t lack purpose. There's worthy motivation behind Mary Magdalene it just feels and looks like an atmosphereless travelogue.