UK Release Date: 16th March 2018
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Garth Davis
Writer: Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett
Starring: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim
Synopsis: A new take on the story of Mary Magdalene, who travelled with Jesus and his followers as one of the apostles, but has been demonised over the years by the Church.
Arriving in time for Easter, Mary Magdalene has been positioned as a big Biblical drama that seeks to rehabilitate its protagonist, who is allegedly one of the most widely misunderstood figures in Christianity, characterised by some as a prostitute. The man taking on the story is Garth Davis, who burst on to the scene last year with the Oscar-nominated drama Lion. That film featured a supporting performance from Rooney Mara, who here steps forward to take on the title role in one of the most boring movies of 2018 so far.
The film essentially unfolds as a sort of Biblical greatest hits compilation, featuring many of the most famous moments in the New Testament, from the resurrection of Lazarus to the cleansing of the temple and, of course, the crucifixion. Mary chooses to follow Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), but immediately butts heads with some of his other disciples, including Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas (Tahar Rahim). Garth Davis subsequently delivers revisionist history, but only in the sense that we’re seeing the normal history from over Rooney Mara’s shoulder.
There’s nothing interesting or innovative about Mary Magdalene, which simply plods through the standard Biblical beats. The film is hurt by the fact it is seeking to rehabilitate a character who was actually rehabilitated a very long time ago. It’s tough to claim that a character is misunderstood and hard done by, when she has literally been considered a saint for centuries. As much as lazier pop culture depictions of the character might lean on the prostitution angle, it’s not a commonly held viewpoint, so does not need to be knocked down.
That’s not to say that this film works at all, even when separated from its revisionist ideals. Mara’s performance is merely adequate, with nothing here even slightly as exciting as the scene in which she spends five minutes scoffing pie in A Ghost Story. The spectre of that film also surfaces in the characterisation of Jesus, who is played by Phoenix as the equivalent of A Ghost Story‘s nihilistic party pontificator. This is a figurehead who is devoid of charisma, warmth or indeed any of the qualities that might make people want to follow him and his teachings.
What Davis has delivered is a film in which boring people wander around dusty landscapes, occasionally pausing to speak to each other in hushed tones. The change of perspective achieves very little in telling a story that is familiar to just about everybody and it often feels as if Mary Magdalene is trapping its audience inside a tedious, exceptionally overlong RE lesson rather than seeking to provide a couple of hours of entertainment.
Pop or Poop?
Garth Davis has delivered a baffling, old-fashioned movie with Mary Magdalene, which reaches for revisionism without actually ever daring to be different. Rooney Mara is sleepwalking, while Joaquin Phoenix is a stunning example of miscasting at its absolute worst. This one is, hopefully, destined to be forgotten in a hurry.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.