Many issues present themselves whenever an attempt is made to adapt the story of Jesus Christ. There’s no question that it’s a damn good story - thrilling in structure, tension, thematic resonance and characterisation - but it’s not only one that’s been told in endless incarnations but one that means a great deal to many millions of people. To attempt it in any way is a huge task, but the premise behind ‘Mary Magdalene’, the highly-anticipated second feature from Australian director Garth Davies (‘Lion’) is to refocus the story from the perspective of one of the few female figures in the story, and one of the most misunderstood biblical figures. Can the film live up to that ambition, or does it buckle under its own convictions?
Working from re-evaluated ancient biblical texts, screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett recreate the story of Mary (Rooney Mara, ‘Carol’, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’), the only known female disciple of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix, ‘The Master’, ‘Inherent Vice’). A young woman desperate for independence in a male-dominated society, Mary seeks understanding in Christ’s teachings, inevitably coming into conflict with his more revolutionary disciples who are determined to free themselves from oppressive Roman rule.
The male-led church has for centuries portrayed Mary as a prostitute, a lowly woman brought out of the gutter by Christ, even though all early writings described her as nothing of the sort. ‘Mary Magdalene’ is an attempt to rectify this, and there’s no question that its heart is in the right place. The problem though is that a simple shift in perspective doesn’t justify this retelling - you feel it should be radical and surprising, but the only surprise is how uninspiring and perfunctory it feels. Edmundson and Goslett’s screenplay is almost entirely exposition, a cliché-riddled humourless piece of writing that initially attempts fresh characterisation but quickly falls into familiar patterns. It gives neither Davies nor the cast much to work with, but the freshness that made ‘Lion’ so special is lacking here in Davies’ direction. The film meanders aimlessly for much of its two hours, beginning with striking visual metaphor before simply following Jesus and his disciples wandering through the desert, not taking advantage of any of the storytelling tools at Davies’ disposal. There are moments of potential power, such as the arrival of Jerusalem, but they come too late to make up for how scattered and dull the rest of the film is. Grieg Fraser’s cinematography is as gorgeous as you would expect from him and Fiona Crombie’s production design is beautifully textured, but the spine they’re working with is too flimsy for anything to stick. Thematic ambitions are never reached and no creative ambitions are ever attempted. At least it does offer us one of our last chances to hear the work of late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, here collaborating with Hildur Guðnadóttir.
The real issue at the heart of ‘Mary Magdalene’ is that Mary herself is never given the chance to truly take over as the driving protagonist. Her struggle to push against the patriarchal boundaries that hold her in within her family and the Jewish community are affecting in the first act, but once Jesus enters the story, his presence is so immense that the film has no choice but to shift focus to him for almost the rest of the film at the expense of Mary’s story. For the most part, what we get are endless shots of Mary sitting next to him and listening to his ramblings (and his iconic words become nothing but ramblings with this screenplay and Phoenix’s performance). Some attempt is made in the final moments to bring the focus back to Mary as a major historical figure, but again, this comes far too late, and the impact barely registers. Telling the story of Christ from a female perspective and reframing this important woman sound like all the right reasons to make a film, but it’s not enough to just make those changes. You have to work for them, cultivate them, weave them into something special and new, and this film barely makes an impression.
The real issue at the heart of ‘Mary Magdalene’ though is that Mary herself is never given the chance to truly take over as the driving protagonist.
As a consequence, the performances suffer. We should be celebrating Rooney Mara finally having another lead role, and she certainly makes the most of what she’s given. The problem is, it isn’t much, requiring her to switch between inner turmoil and doe-eyed devotion with little in between. She’s easily the standout, but that’s only because she gives the film its barely-perceptible pulse. As Jesus, Joaquin Phoenix engages all his worst tendencies as an actor, delivering a self-obsessed, barely audible performance that gives us less a powerful radical revolutionary than a whiny emo whelp on the verge of either falling asleep or crying. He gives nothing to anyone working around him, especially Mara, and lacks the charisma and generosity necessary. Chiwetel Ejiofor is fine as Peter, but the script can never decide who Peter is, making it hard for us to understand his motivations, and while Tahar Rahim gives a genuinely refreshing and often moving interpretation of Judas, again the script just doesn’t give him enough to really land it.
As an attempt to course-correct our understanding of the importance of Mary Magdalene, this film might have the best intentions, but fails to achieve them. As a follow-up from the team that made ‘Lion’, it’s definitely a disappointment, more akin to that film’s rambling second act than its virtuosic first. In the end, what should have been a powerful film about an important woman in the founding of Christianity becomes just a film about an independent young woman who gives up her life to help some moody white guy achieve his ambitions. There’s so much to be found in Mary’s story, but this tedious and humourless film doesn’t dig anywhere deep enough.