Despite Mary Magdalene being the first person to see the resurrected Christ, she has been remembered largely in the shadow of the disciples and Jesus himself. Director Garth Davis sets out to challenge this, placing us in 33 CE and following Jesus, with Mary as his 13th disciple, through the Biblical best hits: the rising of Lazarus, the casting out of the money lenders, the last supper, the crucifixion and the final resurrection.
Davis, and screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, introduce us to Mary (Rooney Mara) living amongst her family: fixing fishing nets, acting as a midwife and devoted to her prayer. This devotion, combined with a reluctance to marry, leads the men folk to believe Mary is possessed by demons, resulting in them dragging her out to sea in a shocking exorcism. The brutality of this near drowning is soon brought into sharp contrast with the soft and moving baptisms of a travelling preacher, Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix). Mary decides to follow Jesus, much to the chagrin of her family and several of the apostles, most notably Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Phoenix is strangely passionless as Jesus, reminding me more of a guy who’d ask if I knew where to buy acid at a festival than the Son of God. Phoenix jarringly speaks with an American twang, whilst the rest of the cast sport various wandering and dodgy accents. Despite being a couple off screen, the chemistry between Mara and Phoenix is restricted largely by the formal dialogue, limited to breathy theological quips and pious staring. Other biblical films have suggested a sexual relationship between Mary and Jesus, an idea this film seems so painfully desperate to avoid that it prevents a meaningful relationship developing between the two. Whilst the camera stays close to Mara’s face, the beauty and energy she was able to transmit in the now infamous eight-minute pie scene in A Ghost Story is lost here, with several scenes verging on being actively boring.
The feminist credentials of the film are shaky at best. We see the story through Mary, rather than seeing Mary’s story, limiting the claims of a radical retelling. Although Mary tells Jesus she fears “My thoughts, my longings, my unhappiness”, we never get close to understanding what these are, and her characterisation feels utterly incomplete. With the tagline ‘Her story will be told’, the film sets out to counter the popular belief that Mary was a sex worker. On screen text at the close of the film explains that this misconception stems in fact from Pope Gregory in 591, not from the gospels. Even Mara herself “grew up thinking she [Mary] was a prostitute”. This simultaneous denial of Mary as a sex worker and reappraisal of her as a feminist icon unfortunately ends up creating a feeling that, to give us a true feminist retelling, Mary’s reputation must be totally rehabilitated and sex work demonised.
Although the film purports to offer a retelling of Mary’s life, the most inspired narrative twist is that of Judas, played by the supremely talented Tahar Rahim. Rather than betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, Judas is instead depicted as a loyal man, whose desperation to be reunited with his dead wife and daughter lead to the ultimate betrayal.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: Universal Pictures International