Mary Magdalene – Film Review by Frank L
Director: Garth Davis
Writers: Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett
Stars: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Mary Magdalene is a biblical figure of some considerable significance. Unfortunately for her subsequent reputation, she was a woman. She was declared by Pope Gregory the Great in 591 to be a prostitute, albeit a penitent one. Her name was therefore to be given to a series of asylums for “fallen women” from the eighteenth century onwards in Britain, Ireland, America and Canada whose inmates were referred to as penitents. The inmates were in many respects closer to prisoners and had minimal rights. The last of these institutions was closed in Waterford in 1996.
On 3rd June 2016 the Vatican issued a statement in which Mary Magdalene’s saint’s day was declared to be a feast day. So in recent times her official reputation appears to have been somewhat reassessed and she is now referred to as the apostle to the apostles. In this film, Garth Davis (Lion 2016) takes on the need for the historical reassessment of Mary Magdalene amongst a wider audience.
Mary Magdalene is played by Rooney Mara and Jesus Christ by Joaquin Phoenix. Peter is Chiwetel Ejiofor and Judas is Tahar Rahim. The story begins on the shores of the sea of Galilee and it becomes apparent quickly that Mary Magdalene is different to her female contemporaries. She is not dependent on a man and appears to have little desire to be so dependent. However, society does not consider her to be entirely normal and that she may be possessed by some base spirit. Jesus then enters her life and she becomes a committed follower of him. The film then tracks through the familiar stories of the New Testament.
It all takes place in shades of brown and beige and every colour in between. The dialogue is limited and there is a great deal of meaningful looking. However, Mary Magdalene is the central figure amongst the apostles. She is certainly not a mere token female presence. Davis portrays her as being pivotal to the story , as corroborated by the gospels, as being at the crucifixion and being the person who discovered that the tomb was subsequently empty.
Somehow the film nevertheless does not seem to be able to engage. This may be because the story it is telling is one the audience is likely to have heard many, many times. To change those latent preconceived appearances which lurk in secret crevices of the brain is not easy. It is made more difficult if one of the central characters in the story is also undergoing a major makeover from that which has been previously told. Davis is undoubtedly a good story teller but this re-telling of a familiar story in these circumstances consequently requires extraordinary skills. Unfortunately, Davis fails to surmount the awesome challenges he set himself.