Mary Magdalene

 

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A film that veers between the fascinating and the banal but does not lack interest.

 
Mary Magdalene

Mara as Mary

 

In recent times a number of films have been made - mainly in America - treating religious themes and doing so in the hope that church people in the USA will rally to them. The arrival on our screen of Mary Magdalene is in line with this, but even the film's publicity – “From the director of Lion and from the producers of The King's Speech” - suggests that the filmmakers have a wider audience in mind. It should certainly help that the cast is not one usually associated with this kind of film: Rooney Mara in the title role, Joaquin Phoenix as Christ, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter and Tahar Rahim as Judas Iscariot.

 

Furthermore, this film, directed by the Australian Garth Davis and written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, is offering something unique in biblical dramas. As stated at the close of Mary Magdalene, Pope Francis made a special declaration in 2016 regarding her - in effect he was putting her on the same level as Jesus's disciples. But it is in a manner that seems more geared to secular concerns than to religious ones that this film builds up what is known about Mary Magdalene to convert her into a feminist icon for today. Early on, she chooses independence and walks out on the family who expect her to marry the man they deem suitable. Then, once she has become a follower of Christ, she turns out to be more insightful of his aims in suffering the crucifixion than do any of the other disciples who are thereby shown as impliedly inferior to her.

 

The fact that the film pushes this view of Mary Magdalene to such extremes and in such a simplistic way means that it is difficult to take this side of the film seriously - and even more so when the narrative is accompanied by a banal music score that rarely knows when to let up. It is not Rooney Mara's fault if the interest in this film lies elsewhere. First, there's Phoenix's strikingly individual take on Christ. He rejects the weight of tradition that goes with most portrayals of Jesus on film and creates a convincing figure of a man finding his way as he responds to the world around him: he may have come from God but his taking human form is at the core of the actor's interpretation. Secondly, aided by a sympathetic performance by Rahim, the film takes an unusual if not new view of Judas Iscariot which carries conviction.

 

These are the positive aspects that command attention here, but Mary Magdalene undoubtedly contains much that counts as a disservice to the efforts of Phoenix and Rahim. That certainly includes the cherry-picking when it comes to which parts of the Passion Story make it onto the screen. This is quite a long film and one wonders how such late episodes as the hearing before Pontius Pilate can be fitted in without the length becoming excessive. But most fortunately for the film Mary Magdalene is knocked unconscious by a blow to the head while in Gethsemane: this means that she can come round just in time to head directly for the crucifixion. Such details are easy to joke about, but elsewhere the film is of genuine interest.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet, Lubna Azabal, Tchéky Karyo, Ryan Corr, Uri Gavriel, Shira Haas, David Schofield, Hadas Yaron.

 

Dir Garth Davis, Pro Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Liz Watts, Screenplay Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, Ph Greig Fraser, Pro Des Fiona Crombie, Ed Alexandre de Franceschi and Melanie Ann Oliver, Music Hildur  Gudnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson, Costumes Jacqueline Durran.

 

Focus Features/Film4/FilmNation/See-Saw Films/Porchlight Films-Universal Pictures.
120 mins. UK/Australia/USA. 2018. Rel: 16 March 2018. Cert. 12A.