Mary Magdalene (AU - M / UK - 12A)

In a Word: Heavy-handed

Mary Magdalene 

"Mary Magdalene features some good acting, visually impacting cinematography and is, by and large, a well-made film. And yet it tries a little too hard to redeem Mary and ends up coming across as heavy-handed - so much so that film ends up making her such a central character that it almost – almost – verges on a Gospel rewrite."

When Pope Gregory the Great declared Mary Magdalene a reformed prostitute in the late sixth century AD (apparently out of confusion with another Biblical Mary), the idea stuck and ever since, this rather enigmatic figure from the Gospels has worn that stain. In more recent years, the Vatican has moved to erase that strain, even declaring in 2016 that Mary was an "apostle to the apostles" thanks to her role as the first witness to the risen Christ.

That little bit of history only gets mentioned at the very end of director Garth Davis' film (he of Lion fame), but it sums up the premise of this film which is all about reclaiming the character of Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene features some good acting, visually impacting cinematography and is, by and large, a well-made film. And yet it tries a little too hard to redeem Mary and ends up coming across as heavy-handed - so much so that film ends up making her such a central character that it almost – almost – verges on a Gospel rewrite.

Mary, played here by Rooney Mara, is unconventional daughter of a fisherman who resists the role the patriarchal community she lives in has placed on her, including her family’s choice of a marriage partner.

In a crisis over that decision, she seeks prayerful solace in the local synagogue but that’s very much a ‘no-no’ and she is seen to bring shame upon her family.

So when a strange rabbi named Jesus (Joachim Phoenix) comes to her village of Magdala, on the shores of Lake Galilee, with his disciples, she is immediately hooked and instead of the life her family had planned for her, she throws that all aside and becomes one of his followers.

The presence of a woman among them causes some discomfort among the disciples who are led by Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) but Mary’s deepening relationship with Jesus allows her to keep her place among them as He is drawn to Jersualem and his eventual crucifixion.

Mara puts in a strong performance in the title role and Ejiofor is a great choice as Peter. But it’s Joaquin Phoenix who arguably has hardest role – that of Jesus – and, while he does, at times, make a compelling Christ, at other times he comes across at times as a little too “otherwordly”, even spaced out.

The harsh environment in which they lived in Israel 2000 years ago is beautifully recreated in this film – from the barrenness of rural regions to the overwhelming, almost cloying, atmosphere Jesus and His disciples encounter in Jerusalem. 

The focus on Mary means many of the events recounted in the Gospels are skimmed over but there's some interesting takes on moments such as when Jesus drives the money-lenders from the Temple.

Indeed, there's much to commend the approach Davis has taken - despite the criticism that the film is too dull, this viewer appreciated the at times slow pace as a means of engaging with the story - and while theologians will continue to debate exactly who Mary Magdalene was and the role that she played in the Gospel narrative, the film provides much food for thought for those interesting in gaining a deeper understanding of this important character.

In the end, however, the need to redeem Mary tends to overpower the story, weakening emotional connection with her as a character. That's a shame because otherwise this is a fascinating look into the story of someone whose story deserves to be told.