Setting out to tell the story of Jesus’ last days from the point of view of the only woman among the apostles is the brave and interesting aim of Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene.”
At the film’s premiere in London last year — the film’s U.S. release was delayed due to the bankruptcy of its former distributor, The Weinstein Company — the Australian director claimed his film would “celebrate the remarkable spiritual contribution of Mary that has remained hidden for 2,000 years.” Again, a laudable ambition had it not been revealed a few minutes before that the National Gallery, the venue for the event, held no less than 50 painted images of Mary Magdalene on its walls. Maybe all of those representations have been wrong.
Davis, riding high on the success of his Oscar-nominated 2016 hit “Lion,” turns the camera on Rooney Mara as his Mary, a headstrong girl from the rock-strewn fishing village of Magdala, who, following a visit from the “Healer” to her local market place, defies her father to join the Apostles and follow Jesus.
Jesus, played by Joaquin Phoenix with full beard and glaring eyes (much how he delivers most roles these days), baptizes his new follower in the Sea of Galilee that she ‘”may be awake for the days that follow.” I reckon some audiences might need a bit of that, too.
Davis fails to find any drama or chemistry in the relationship, which is quite astonishing given it’s allegedly the greatest story ever told (and given Phoenix and Mara are allegedly a real-life couple, too). Alas this version does not achieve greatness, lumbered as it is with a lot of mumbling Mediterranean accents from a cast of Greek, French and Israeli actors (including Ariane Labed, Tcheky Karyo, Denis Menochet, Lubna Azabal, Lior Raz, Hadas Yaron) and a script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett which necessarily contains lines like: “Of course I don’t question the miracles, Judas.” Not even actors of the stature of Chiwitel Ejiofor as Peter can make that sound right.
The film’s earnest purpose is to cast Mary Magdalene in a new light after centuries of being considered a prostitute or fallen woman. Instead, once free from the conventional shackles of village and synagogue life, she spends the film gazing wide-eyed up at Jesus from under what looks like an old table cloth. If the look was supposed to be devotion or something more divine, Mara fails to reveal anything behind those cheekbones.
A feminist slant on the Jesus story would also be welcome, of course. But I’m not sure how feminist a situation this could ever be: he thinks he’s God … and so does she.
Neither does Davis keep the narrative to Mary’s point of view. As it wanders, Tahar Rahim as Judas easily steals the film away with by far the most interesting performance, the French actor from “A Prophet” creating a man so deludedly ecstatic about his leader’s promise of the Kingdom that he can’t wait to get it started. As for the rest of the apostles, you do wonder what they’re getting out of it. Fun is thin on the ground, and spiritual enlightenment feels a long way off.
The film is certainly beautifully lensed by Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Rogue One”), but it uses overly familiar “biblical” locations such as Matera in Basilicata (it’s always Matera in these things) and Trapani in Sicily. The music is by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson in collaboration with Hildur Gudnadottir, but even their plangent strings are too often used to cover for the lack of tension on screen.
It is still hard to approach any re-telling of this tale without “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” ringing through one’s head, a curse that returns with particular vengeance here in a scene where a large crowd of consisting mainly of women in black veils start chanting “Messiah, Messiah” at Joaquin Phoenix.
Davis seems to have taken fright at the task and tiptoed around any controversy or revisionist heresy, leaving one almost pining for Mel Gibson. Only when Phoenix gets angry with the Pharisees in the Jerusalem market place does the film spark into some sort of life, before rushing the climactic days in a blur; we go from the Garden at Gethsemane to Phoenix on the cross in less than five minutes.
The end credits acknowledge this as a work of fiction that is “true to the essence and value of Mary whose story is found in the Gospels.” Yet there’s no conviction to the direction or story, no passion for the Passion, no fresh insight provided by the female perspective, nor into the female perspective. If it probes the nature of religion and faith, it does it so gently so as not to offend believers and non-believers. One scene, in which Jesus lectures the women of Cana, could have been theologically daring, but it feels too carefully pitched and most unsatisfactory.
As “The Passion of the Christ” has proven, this story can be huge box office. For all the potential, I can’t see this “Mary Magdalene” catching hold for its backers, who include British outfit Film 4 and See Saw producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman of “The King’s Speech” fame. Other than to show that a woman called Mary who wasn’t a prostitute was involved in the final weeks of the Jesus story, I have no idea what the filmmakers wanted for this project. I’m pretty sure they didn’t achieve it.