This biopic of Mary Magdalene is a feminist retelling that may well be deserved but it’s so dreary and unremarkable that the fact it is well intentioned and even, perhaps, necessary can’t come through and win the day. Or even part of the day. Just the morning, say.
Directed by Garth Davis (Lion), and written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, this is, according to the bumf, the Mary of the original gospels rather than the repentant sinner and ‘prostitute’, which is what, in truth, I always had her down as, but then I did get most of my learning from Jesus Christ Superstar. I now know, however, that ‘fallen woman’ was only ever an invention put about by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century, later perpetuated by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who should have known better, frankly.
Here, Mary (Rooney Mara) is not just surely the whitest woman ever to exist indigenously in the Middle East but has also been awarded a back story that is just the sort of back story you would award Mary in such a retelling. So she’s the daughter of a patriarchal fishing family — the whitest patriarchal fishing family ever to exist in the Middle East, surely — and they can’t get over her refusal to marry, so beat her up, in effect. She withdraws (i.e. lies on a mat and stares wordlessly into space) until she is visited by this preacher and healer they’ve all heard about. Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) does home visits! He cups her head in his hands and she says: ‘We women, our lives are not our own.’ And he says: ‘Your spirit is your own. You must follow God.’ And she’s smitten, even though you are desperate to interrupt and say: ‘Hang on, Maz, he’s just delivering you from one patriarchy to another! Have a think about this, love, please.’
But she doesn’t have a think. Instead she joins his retinue, which includes Judas (Tahar Rahim) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a brief glimpse of Matthew (come back, Matthew!) but none of the other disciples, who hardly even get a mention, weirdly. As they schlepp across deserts they look less like a major religion in the making and more like the sad straggle of Jehovahs that sometimes do my street. Meanwhile the storytelling is so plodding and cautious and inert that even the events that should be thoroughly dramatic — the rising of Lazarus, the expulsion of the money-changers, Judas’s betrayal, the last supper — have all the life sucked out of them. They may as well be shopping in Asda. Mostly, the action, such at it is, has Mary steadfastly gazing at Jesus while he steadfastly gazes heavenwards and speaks new age gobbledegook about ‘kingdoms’, which she then has to womansplain to Judas and Peter, who appear to be quite thick. The crucifixion is gory, admittedly, but as you haven’t believed a word of any of this, it does not resonate emotionally. As for the resurrection, if I were resurrected, I’d whoop and dance, but Jesus just sits on a rock, gazing steadfastly. Seems hardly worth the bother.
One also has to wonder why, prior to filming, no one bothered to hold an Accent Meeting. Or, if they did, why it was decided that everyone should speak in a Hebrew-inflected accent (when they remembered), while Jesus should be pure American. The film is, however, well intentioned and it is wholly inoffensive. Malcolm Muggeridge (RIP) wouldn’t have had a fit and the Bishop of Wherever is not going to have a fit, assuming the Bishop of Wherever stays awake. (It’s a struggle.) As for Mary’s look, it’s shapeless beige linen, largely. A belt would have worked wonders. Nice sandals, though. Very on-trend.