Mary Magdalene (★★, 12A, 120 mins) is a film on a mission: it wants to rehabilitate the reputation of its title character. The Magdalene presented here is not the reformed prostitute of legend, but a determined young woman, played by Rooney Mara, who not only leaves her domineering family behind to follow Jesus, but is also the first of his followers truly to understand him.
Early on in proceedings Christ and his disciples arrive at the small village (or rather, collection of tents) that Mary and her family call home. Despite the furious protestations of Mary’s brother, who has previously tried to exorcise his single-minded sibling, she joins the band of believers in following Jesus to Jerusalem. From here, we follow the story of the betrayal of Christ, his Crucifixion and Resurrection.
With a po-faced earnestness, Garth Davis’s film tries, and fails, to meld the sweep of a religious epic (grandiose score, panoramic shots of the desert) with an art-house sensibility. The worst example of this are the recurring glimpses of Mary adrift underwater that serve no useful purpose.
As well as this uncomfortable clash of styles, the movie has a major narrative problem that it has no hope of solving.
In the first half, which is centered on Mary’s familial rebellion, Davis just about manages to achieve what he set out to do. Namely, establishing his heroine as a quietly resolute, independent woman, despite a slightly underpowered performance by Mara in the title role. But as we move into the second hour and the story of Jesus becomes the central concern, this groundwork fades away as Mary’s presence among the disciples is, inevitably, demoted to sub-plot. A final heated argument between Mary and St Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), which pits the former as a visionary thinker who truly understands Christ’s message in a way her bone-headed male counterparts fail to grasp, doesn’t do enough to solve that problem. Plus, the familiarity of the Easter story rather sucks the dramatic tension from the last hour.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ dealt with this issue by going for full-on body horror, in order to shock the audience into engagement. Here, with his heroine as a somewhat passive observer and an awkward mish-mash of cinematic approaches, Davis fails to achieve the same result. Not even a sterling turn from Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Jesus as a charismatic and enigmatic figure, can provide salvation for this Mary Magdalene.