MARY MAGDALENE

Reviewed by Greg King

Director: Garth Davis

Stars: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahin, Denis Menochet, Tcheky Karyo, Ryan Corr.

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In the 50s, Biblical films were extremely popular, with sweeping epics like the Oscar winning Ben Hur and the spectacular The Ten Commandments scoring at the box office. These stories drawn from the Bible featured timeless themes of good versus evil and epic battles. But in the 60s their popularity seemed to wane. More modern takes on Bible stories have tended to be revisionist in nature – Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation Of Christ and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – while Mel Gibson’s violent and visceral The Passion Of The Christ proved a huge box office hit.

In most of those Biblical stories, the character of Mary Magdalene was often marginalised, and was a peripheral one at best. In popular mythology she was depicted as a prostitute, an idea propagated by Pope Gregory in 591. This film goes some way to redressing that misconception, as Mary Magdalene recounts the greatest story ever told from a feminine perspective.

Mary Magdalene offers a feminist take on the traditional story of Jesus and comes across as a Biblical era tale of female empowerment. It has been written by two female writers in Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett. This is the first feature script from writer Edmundson, who has written extensively for television and the stage, while Goslett has written for films such as the quirky How To Talk To Girls At Parties, etc.  The writers touch upon a few of the miracles that Jesus performed, bus basically they take a few liberties with the accepted Biblical story.

When we first meet Mary (here played with ethereal grace and stoic silence by Rooney Mara, from the remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc) she lives in Magdala, a small fishing village. Her views though have put her at odds with the rest of her family who hold more traditional values. She then meets the travelling teacher Jesus (a dishevelled Joaquin Phoenix) and his band of disciples who are travelling across the country urging rebellion against the Roman Empire. She follows them across the windswept plains and deserts to Jerusalem, where Jesus meets his fate.  The film follows her own spiritual journey as she becomes his only female apostle.

Rooney brings a quiet, ethereal quality to her portrayal of Mary, and her performance gives us a new take on the familiar figure. She is the heart of the film and carries it. Phoenix has a solemn and intense presence as a scruffy looking and introspective Jesus, looking more like a sedated Charles Manson than anything else. He mumbles his way through much of the dialogue and he seems to lack passion and the requisite charisma that would attract a band of loyal acolytes. The international cast also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, who leaves a strong impression as Peter, while Tahar Rahin (from the tough prison drama A Prophet, etc) gives us a rather conflicted Judas Iscariot.

Mary Magdalene is the sophomore feature from Australian filmmaker Garth Davis, whose Lion has won praise from critics and garnered many awards. His direction here is restrained, and the film is languidly paced for the most part and is rather dull, ponderous and uninspired, and lacks any real sense of tension. There are lots of meaningful looks and long silences, which add little to the drama.

Technical aspects are excellent however. There is some gorgeous and evocative cinematography from Greig Fraser, who also shot Lion, and he captures the rugged, desolate windswept landscapes. Remote coastal regions of Spain and Italy doubled for the Middle East, and these locations seem perfectly suited. Fraser’s muted, washed out colour palette is mainly brown and grey, which gives the film a certain bleak mood. Jacqueline Durran’s simple costumes are also evocative of the era. This features the final film score from the late Oscar nominated Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, which casts a somewhat poignant pall over the material.

Davis’ rather dull but reverent take on the story of Mary and Jesus will not please the traditionalists, and this solemn film will also struggle to appeal to a general audience with little interest in matters of religion. And in an unintended irony, the film’s US distribution has been delayed due to the legal wrangling over the financial future of the beleaguered Weinstein Company in the wake of the tawdry sex scandals that have gripped it in recent weeks.

★★☆

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