Mary Magdalene (2018) **
Dir.: Garth Davis; Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Tamar Ramin, Chiwetel Eljofor; UK/Australia 2018, 120’.
This biblical story about the first Christian proto-feminist must at one time have seemed a very good idea for a run at the Oscars’ in a drama that re-unites Australian director Garth Davis, star Rooney Mara and producer Harvey Weinstein of Lion’s fame. Unfortunately, we all know what happened, and Mary Magdalene gets re-scheduled fo the run-up to Easter, hoping that audiences will fall for the total elimination of the Prince of Darkness’ central role in this feature.
Mary Magdalene (Rooney) is a public-spirited member of the small Jewish fishing community in a country invaded and ruled by the Romans. She works hard, delivers babies and has a social conscience – but she does not want marriage, even though her father has tried his best. The Talmud supports the total subservience of women and Mary yearns for a way out. Then along comes Jesus of Nazareth (Phoenix) and his band of apostles, who preach social justice and a religion of love and understanding instead of the old-fashioned God of Thunder and Wrath. Mary Magdalene becomes Jesus’ confidant, and the males, particularly Peter (Eljofor), becomes jealous: “You are weakening us Mary” exclaims Peter. Mary Magdalene is very much into a more soul-centred revolution, not the violent social uprising the apostles have in mind. On the way to Jerusalem, we witness the usual miracles such as the raising of Lazarus, before things go wrong in the capital city. Interestingly, Judas is not so much a traitor in this version of the gospel, as rather an ambivalent character. In the end, after the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene is expelled by the male apostles – only for Peter to found a Christian religion repressing women as much as Judaism, with one of the early Popes in 591 declaring Mary Magdalene a prostitute, a slanderous lie which was overturned by the Catholic Church only in 2016.
Davis goes for dignity – the opposite of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ – and (the real life couple) Rooney and Phoenix act accordingly, all looks and whispered wisdom. But the result is a badly under-cooked, anaemic feature, with no intellectual or emotional impact. DoP Craig Fraser makes atmospheric use of the landscape of Sicily and Southern Italy: the bleached colours and the black granite are perfectly captured – but Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s script is simply too tame to rouse the audience from a bemused detachment. AS
ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 16 MARCH 2018