Garth Davis’ well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed attempt to correct an ancient wrong sees him addressing the longstanding besmirching upon Mary Magdalene’s character. The story goes that Magdalene, according to the New Testament, followed Jesus Christ in his final days and was a witness to his crucifixion and resurrection. Conventional wisdom also states that she was a prostitute although, as the movie is at pains to point out, this is an assertion not supported by any biblical text. Davis’ movie frames this mischaracterisation as something tantamount to a blood libel popularised by Pope Gregory I and acts as a rebuttal, showing Magdalene, not only as a virtuous woman, but a misunderstood and abused soul.
Escaping from the patriarchal oppression of her seaside village, Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) tags along with Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his disciples, winding their way across the countryside of the Holy Land with Jesus preaching and his disciples anticipating the establishment of a new kingdom and freedom from Roman oppression.
Here, Mary is no promiscuous woman, she is saintly and inquisitive, challenging the assumptions of Jesus’ disciples, principally Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Refusing to submit to a marriage arranged by her father and forging her own path, she is portrayed as a feminist trailblazer, cast adrift in a world dominated by men.
This would amount to a hugely welcoming retelling of a story with a fresh pair of eyes if it wasn’t so resolutely mirthless from beginning to end. Mara constantly wears an expression of bemusement which I’m sure is supposed amount to a manifestation of divinity, but one swears is actually boredom.
The feeling is one shared by the audience as the movie plods its mirthless way across the admittedly beautiful desert scenery. A residue of visual brilliance is about the only thing of note and Greig Fraser’s location cinematography is stunning to watch. But you’re left with a feeling that, for all its ambition, the movie delivers little more than a visually stimulating travelogue.
Phoenix plays Christ almost like some rambling, stoned sage, dispensing wisdom in a fashion that seems to throwback to Inherent Vice, but with such a lack of vim that one suspects, had the real-life Jesus been so tedious, Christianity would never have found its feet.
A worthwhile attempt to shine fresh light on a long-established story, but a movie that does itself precious little justice.
Chris Banks | [rating=2]
Drama | Australia,2018 | 12A | 16th March 2018 (UK) |Universal Pictures | Dir.Garth Davis | Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Tahar Rahim, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ariane Labed, Ryan Corr