Mary Magdalene


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Mary Magdalene
"At times one suspects that what the director really wanted was to dispense with dialogue altogether and substitute a plot in which Mary and Jesus spend two hours gazing meaningfully into one another's eyes."

Once upon a time there was a girl called Mary, from Magdala, aka Mary Magdalene, who kept being moved by the ineffable mystery that lies within the silence. That spooked big bro Daniel, who reckoned she had a demon, and tried to exorcise it. But Jesus believed her.

Next thing, Mary has upped and left her family, though all agree this will bring Great Shame upon them, and is trekking off into the foothills of Galilee with big J and the apostles.

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Not that this pleases Peter, who instantly worries about what the crowd will say if they are accompanied by a woman. Besides, he and all the rest of the guys are mightily worked up by the idea that any day now Jesus is going to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, which will be just dandy.

Though it is pretty obvious it's Mary-come-lately who gets it and the other eight or nine (what? You thought there were 12 apostles?) are just along for the ride.

Several miracles and a strop-in at the temple later, Jesus is not looking good, what with the scourging and nailing to the cross thing. So while the rest of the apostles lie low, Mary hies herself to the Big Man's tomb, there to learn the great news that He is still alive.

Which you'd think would please the apostles muchly. But then you've not factored in Peter's manly pride which means no way can he accept that a latecomer - and a woman! - could be chosen over him. “You weaken us!”, he spits crossly.

Cue the equivalent of spiritual tutting as Mary strides out into the world, determined never to be silenced again and establishing the Marian church of women, forever and ever, amen. (Okay, I made that last bit up).

Apologies for the spoilers...but this is one story those brought up in the Christian tradition will already be familiar with. As for divergence from established scripture, it goes with the franchise. Mary Magdalene has long been a bit of a problem when it comes to Catholic theology.

A woman of questionable virtue, if you did your catechism much before the turn of the century, or inspiration for a cornucopia of theories about how the early church deliberately excluded women if you opt for a more modern, secular reading. Which, of course, this film does, big time.

It won't please the traditionalists, and I - well, I have to confess I found it all just deeply irritating. Hard to put my finger on why that was so, initially but on reflection it was this: that in their enthusiasm for putting a new slant on a historical narrative, director Garth Davis and writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett tied themselves in knots trying and failing to represent the complex relationship between feminist and Christian thought.

So yes: there is most definitely a case to be made for Mary having been written out of the plot by an early male-dominated church (but perhaps historically inaccurate to make that writing out contemporary). And yeah: thumbing your nose at doctrine by placing Mary at Jesus' right hand at the Last Supper or – heresy! - allowing her to deliver the sacrament of baptism, or even, subtly, implying a link twixt midwifery and raising from the dead; yes, I get all that.

What remains unexamined - the elephant in the room - is, f'rinstance, how the doctrine of Christian forgiveness sits alongside a woman's right not to be raped.

In fact, there is a whole herd of pachyderms trampling through this film. Although notionally about Mary, it is impossible to forget that the central narrative is that of Jesus and, because she was not present at many of the major milestones along the way, the story has to make up for her absence with meaningful looks and silences. Which is something it does very well. At times one suspects that what the director really wanted was to dispense with dialogue altogether and substitute a plot in which Mary and Jesus spend two hours gazing meaningfully into one another's eyes.

And it's really not good for those who weren't brought up in a Christian tradition and so are not familiar with the back story.

As for that dialogue! It's not bad when converting gospel tales into a modern vernacular: absolutely grating when, at the end, Mary drops into modern feminist-speak, to rail against “opposition” and “destruction”. Almost as grating as the bossy didactic look-at-me-I'm-important opening and closing credits.

Then there is Mary's eventual “triumph”, which overlooks the fact that it didn't happen.

In the end, this film has all the hallmarks of films attempting religion from the standpoint of people who don't do religion. Releasing it in the UK “in time for Easter” seems only to deepen that mismatch. Those who care about the dogma won't thank them for the film; and those who don't – the secular followers of Dan Brown – won't care about the date.

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and Rooney Mara as Mary, presenting as a sort of Messianic Batman and Robin, make a valiant attempt to breathe life into a film that is essentially about silence and meaningful staring. Tahar Rahim as Judas Iscariot is likeable: Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a hyper-masculine angry Peter, is just wasted.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2018
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An interpretation of the Biblical story of the woman who travelled with Jesus.
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Read more Mary Magdalene reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Garth Davis

Writer: Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett

Starring: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet

Year: 2018

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK, Australia


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