Few will argue that women get a raw deal when it comes to the Bible. From introducing original sin to having your name synonymous with treachery and betrayal, there’s clearly a pattern. Another such case is that of Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus who was labelled with an unfair reputation.
Garth Davis’ latest film Mary Magdalene (with Rooney Mara in the titular role) looks to set the record straight with regards to the commonly held belief that she was a prostitute, details absent from the canonical gospels, and instead highlight how important she was to Jesus and his message.
Davis wastes no time in establishing Mary’s character and the world she inhabits. Men tell her what to do and expect her to obey without question. She hears tales of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and is intrigued by his teachings. When he arrives in her town with his followers, she joins him much to the protests of the male members of her family.
It isn’t easy for Mary to integrate with the apostles as she finds herself discriminated by Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is clearly jealous of how Jesus favours Mary. The relationship between Mary and Jesus is stripped of any Dan Brown conspiracy, instead Davis presents a nuanced association. Rooney Mara puts in a wonderfully understated performance, standing out in world that largely ignores her due to her sex. She commands each scene even though her character is constantly ice skating uphill.
Phoenix’s portrayal of the messiah shows a vulnerability. Although he is the son of God, he’s limited by flesh and blood with each miracle performed straining his body and mind. Mary is shown to be a motherly and caring influence while the men in his life demand so much of him. This leads to an interesting subplot with Judas (Tahar Rahim), full of faith and desperate to be reunited with his family. He is also shown to be a misunderstood character.
As powerful as the message Davis and writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett convey, it’s often lost in the lingering plot, with nothing much happening. There is little of note between landmark events as we crawl into the third act. We wait so long for the inevitable climax, yet the vital aspects leading up to it are glossed over and rushed as the film hurtles towards the ending.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography is stunning yet the depth of the story is limited by the lack of action on screen. The message is strong and clear, the text at the end hammering home how misjudged Mary Magdalene is.
You’ll be forgiven for checking your watch once or twice as the film’s 120 runtime could’ve done with some trimming. The end result is a stripped back biblical film with less emphasis on faith in God and more in our own humanity and how we treat people. Which isn’t a bad message to convey – but it doesn’t make for an entertaining watch.
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