For a long time, the traditional image of Mary Magdalene was of a vulnerable prostitute saved by Jesus. Garth Davis’ (Lion) new epic seeks to update that view — instead casting her as a feminist pioneer who played a vital role in Christ’s final days. Unfortunately for us, the quality of filmmaking doesn’t quite match up to the director’s lofty ambitions.
Opening on a dreamlike underwater sequence, the movie follows Mary (Rooney Mara) as she battles patriarchal oppression in her homeland, discovers Christianity and leaves her family to serve Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). What comes after is a hasty re-tread of well-known biblical events — the raising of Lazarus, Palm Sunday, the crucifixion etc. — all seen from the new viewpoint of Mary. It’s the same story you’ve heard a hundred times before, but with a modern narrative twist.
Predictably, the less-familiar elements are most interesting. Mary’s tense family dynamic feels fresh and exciting; and her brutal exorcism by her overbearing brothers is the most gripping moment of the film. By contrast, the action-packed Last Supper and Garden of Gethsemane scenes are strangely flat and boring. We’ve seen them before and know what happens — better to ignore those and focus on the new stuff. For example, Mara’s standout performance is filled with piercing looks and smouldering intensity. She runs rings around Phoenix, who plays the Son of God like a stoned Obi Wan Kenobi – lots of gazing wistfully at the sunset and mumbling incoherently. It’s a rare misstep from the three-time Oscar nominee and you get the feeling he struggled with the weighty material. In fact, the whole film is over-cautious and too concerned with respecting the story, rather than adapting it. What we’re left with, sadly, is a frustrating quasi-biopic that never quite gets a grip on its subject matter.