'Mary Magdalene': Film Review

Quite contrary.

Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix co-star in this revisionist Biblical drama from 'Lion' director Garth Davis.

A Biblical drama with a stylish high-art look and a timely feminist angle, Mary Magdalene sets out to right historical wrongs by putting Jesus of Nazareth's most famous female follower back at the heart of his story. With his sophomore feature, Australian director Garth Davis (Lion) claims he wants to make a "relatable, relevant and contemporary" Bible story that speaks to believers and nonbelievers alike. It stars real-life couple Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, their second screen pairing this year following Gus Van Sant's Sundance premiere Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.

Mary Magdalene is an uneasy viewing experience, ponderous and disjointed in places, constantly straining for a gravitas it never quite achieves. But it is also an admirably bold effort, crafted with conviction and a strong aesthetic vision. It is tempting to anoint it the official Biblical drama of the #MeToo movement, but that claim is tainted by its distribution links to The Weinstein Co., which recently shelved U.S. release plans while it deals with turmoil over sexual assault allegations.

Premiered in London yesterday, Mary Magdalene makes its public debut at the Dublin film festival tomorrow. The theatrical rollout across much of Europe, Australia, South America and Asia follows from mid-March onwards. Given the big box-office returns earned by a slew of faith-based features, from Mel Gibson's phenomenally successful The Passion of the Christ to critic-proof bilge like The Shack, it would be foolish to dismiss the film's commercial prospects. Then again, Christian conservatives are less likely to warm to a revisionist history that presents Mary as a proud proto-feminist and Jesus as the leader of a quasi-terrorist Jewish Lives Matter movement.

The key casting weakness at the heart of Mary Magdalene is Mara, her porcelain-doll beauty and laser-beam gaze failing to disguise her blank presence and narrow range. Hardly an ideal match for a role that demands screen-filling, history-changing charisma. Thankfully, a heavily bearded Phoenix brings more firepower, playing Jesus as a doubt-wracked mystic-stoner cult leader somewhere between Charles Manson and The Dude from The Big Lebowski. His current run of meaty anti-star performances goes from strength to strength.

The remainder of the film's multi-national, multi-racial cast tend to be burdened with underwritten characters and stilted, on-the-nose lines. The skills of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tahar Rahim are certainly underused as key disciples Peter and Judas, though Davis and his team at least put a fresh twist on Judas. His calculated betrayal of Jesus is depicted here as an ill-fated gamble to try and force him into urgent revolutionary action.

Re-creating the Holy Land in the rugged coastal terrain of southern Italy and Sicily, Mary Magdalene chronicles Mary's involvement with Jesus and his disciples as a series of immersive, painterly, impressionistic tableaux. The dialogue may be clunky, but the visual backdrop is consistently majestic. Imagine if Terrence Malick had directed the island scenes in The Last Jedi, with Mara as keen student Rey Magdalene and Phoenix as an anguished Jesus Skywalker. There is a great disturbance in The Force.

Scripted by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, Mary Magdalene paints its superhuman heroine in too-saintly terms. Gifted with mystical healing and empathy powers for some unexplained reason, only she can offer Jesus effective emotional support as he slouches toward Jerusalem to face rough Roman justice. As the sole disciple to witness both his crucifixion and resurrection, only Mary seems to fully grasp his compassionate humanist message. She is, in short, a Messianic Pixie Dream Girl. Theologians and historians will no doubt shred this interpretation to pieces, but it is an interesting fictional spin on a story that is already layered with multiple fictions.

Mary Magdalene ends by indignantly challenging claims that Mary was a prostitute, apocryphal slurs that began with Pope Gregory back in 591 AD. Given that she is already deemed a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches, her honor probably does not need defending at this late stage. But hey, it's the thought that counts.

In technical terms, Mary Magdalene is a classy package. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) works mostly within an eye-pleasing palette of bleached-out creams, sandy ochres and granite grays. Costume designer Jacqueline Curran (Darkest Hour) mirrors this color scheme with a wardrobe of stylishly minimal shawls and robes, many hand-embroidered for the production by Palestinian refugees working for an anti-poverty social enterprise in Jordan. Striking a poignant note, quite literally, the film's haunting electro-orchestral score marks the final screen credit for composer Johan Johansson, who died this month, here working in tandem with fellow Icelander Hildur Gudnadottir.

Production companies: Film4, Perfect World Pictures, Porchlight Films, See-Saw Films
Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Denis Menochet, Ariane Labed
Director: Garth Davis
Screenwriters: Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Liz Watts
Cinematographer: Greig Fraser
Editors: Alexandre de Franceschi, Melanie Ann Oliver
Music: Hildur Guonadottir, Johann Johannsson
120 minutes