by Chris Shortt
After centuries of religious conservatism and patriarchal prejudice, the figure of Mary Magdalene has finally been given her dues. Yet, despite the wealth of talent at his disposal, the staggeringly poor direction of Garth Davis (Lion) has arguably done more damage to Mary’s tale than it has redeemed it.
The film begins in Judaea, 33 CE – and I say it begins due to the absence of any sense of time progression between sequences. The titular Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) lives a curbed life: though she excels in midwifery, Mary is restricted to these homestead duties, expected to marry whoever the brutish town leader (Lior Raz) deems appropriate. All that drivel. Mary, believe it or not, has other aspirations – and the arrival of a certain healer (Joaquin Phoenix) offers her the chance of a new life, preaching the dawn of a new kingdom: the Kingdom of God.
Portrayals of Jesus’ plight are undeniably manifold, and the injection of Mary’s point-of-view is indeed a refreshing take – not to mention timely, in a moment where Hollywood is being forced to re-examine itself and the stories it tells. Fittingly, the film is predominantly concerned with not only Mary but the women she encounters along her path. Upon passing through Cana of Galilee – allegedly the site of Jesus’ first public miracle – the Apostles are met with scepticism from the town’s women, who find the gospel to be in conflict with their positions as wives and mothers. In response, Jesus instructs them to follow not their husbands, but God; the new kingdom holds greater promise, they preach – despite ostensibly proposing a switch from one form of subservience to another. With the entire purpose of this film apparently lying in its progressive merits, this scene is just one of many that falls shamefully short of the mark.
While the deliberate side-lining of Jesus will inevitably vex certain viewers, the decision itself is not necessarily a short-sighted one. Yet in order to work, the film needs to succeed both in the progressive message it channels and in the accompanying performance of Mara. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, with Mara nowhere near as engaging as she needs to be to carry the film – while the supposedly ‘fresh’ rendering of events ultimately says little at all. The focus on Mary would otherwise work, if not for Davis’ later insistence on the prolonged shots of a crucified Jesus – vital, of course, but incompatible in a film which has gone to such effort to establish Mary as the sole protagonist.
As much as Jesus can be ‘well-cast’, Joaquin Phoenix largely fits the bill – with his piercing, distinctive eyes providing the required heft and presence to play such a fabled individual. His Jesus is one with a marked angst with the world, and it must be said that Phoenix does his best with what is a painfully cumbersome script. Tahar Rahim’s Judas is also one of the few impressive turns – his charm luring in both Mary and the viewer, before growing increasingly belligerent with Jesus’ inaction.
Like the rest of the strong supporting female cast, Lubna Azabal is disappointingly limited to just the one scene – despite offering considerably more weight than the main players. One would presume the sheer level of acting talent acquired for the film would give it some redeeming features, but even Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Peter) is reduced to a one-note, distrustful misogynist.
Mara has been woefully miscast as Mary, carrying a blank emotional expressiveness that blights several moments of a story which possesses such rich filmmaking potential. That the usually-wonderful Mara now seems to be a vacuum, devoid of any spirit, can only be attributed to the film’s director, whose dismal orchestration has deprived the lead of her characteristic emotional range.
If moviegoers are attracted to the film if only to see how the key set-pieces are handled, they will leave bitterly disappointed. The resurrection itself is reduced to a detached long-shot of the cave’s surroundings, while Mary’s interaction with the crucified Jesus is equally as lifeless – only worsened by her subsequent apathy to Judas. The vignette used to shoot Mary’s reaction to Jesus walking the Via Dolorosa, meanwhile, is as stale as the Apostles’ broken bread.
Aside from the performances themselves, the casting alone is sure to be a point of controversy. Only three years after facing whitewashing accusations for her role in Pan, Mara will likely need to confront similar questions over her playing the titular Mary. From Noah to Exodus: Gods and Kings, the Hollywood biblical is no stranger to casting white American faces for what are predominantly Arab roles – and although Mary Magdalene is somewhat an improvement on the aforementioned epics, the casting of both Mara and Phoenix will undoubtedly raise eyebrows. With Phoenix slipping into his role more seamlessly, it is admittedly less of a distraction – but the pale, sore thumb of Mara remained a constant hindrance to the narrative.
The irritating sound design is miles off the mark that it has so blatantly set out to reach. The highly-derivative muffled effect has become such a tired method of creating atmosphere, while some cartoonish Darth Vader breathing in one hyperrealist scene is a farce of burlesque proportions.
Enormous credit must go to the ever-brilliant Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose posthumous score lifts an otherwise forgettable affair to some cinematic relevance, at least. Along with his impressive landscape cinematography, there is some beautiful low-light photography from Greig Fraser – whose previous work on Rogue One and Davis’ Lion similarly lifted those films.
Mary Magdalene is a film that has a purpose; it seeks to give an overtold story a unique and underrepresented perspective. For this alone, it deserves credit – but it also feels infinitely more frustrating when it turns out to be such a benumb failure.
Dir: Garth Davis
Scr: Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett
Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim
Prd: Iain Cunning, Emile Sherman, Liz Watts
DOP: Greig Fraser
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir
Country: USA, UK, Australia
Runtime: 120 mins
Mary Magdalene is released in cinemas on 16th March 2018