Mary Magdalene is a quiet and sensitive film about a radical woman. Lacking the violent bombast of most biblical filmic narratives, and refusing to answer many of the questions it raises, it's a film that may perplex or underwhelm impatient audiences. But it's interesting precisely because of this quietness, and for the way it allows its central character, Mary (Rooney Mara, etherial and serious), a spiritual journey that's valid and plausible, whether or not you can believe in the mumbling Jesus as the son of God or merely a gifted guru ahead of his times. This is a film that arguably allows both possibilities to exist side by side.
We first meet Mary as an empathic young woman living in a small fishing village where she doesn’t fit in with her traditional male-dominated Jewish family. She doesn’t want to marry or bear children and yearns for something intangible. Her independences leaves her open to accusations of demon possession and there are moments of real danger in the way her male relatives try to deal with this rebellion. But when she meets the travelling teacher (Joaquin Phoenix) and his band of disciples, she joins their radical social movement, travelling along the dusty roads to Jerusalem where Jesus meets his cross.
Written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, and produced by the UK/Australian team who made The King’s Speech, Mary Magdalene is the second feature from director Garth Davis, who directed the sweeping and crowd-pleasing Lion (2016). As a viewer raised an Evangelical Christian and fed the gospel stories along with my mother's milk, it was a blessed relief to watch the way this film skips the well-worn greatest hits of the Jesus album – or at least comes at them from a side angle, only showing what Mary herself might have witnessed. The bickering and power plays between the male disciples are also convincing and well drawn (particular highlights include Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter and Tahar Rahim as a sympathetic Judas Iscariot). These conflicts point towards the reason why Mary Magdalene has been sidelined in historical accounts and misrepresented (by the early Catholic church) as a prostitute. There's nothing at all carnal in this re-telling, not even a smidgen of romance. And that's a relief.
Mary Magdalene is committed to showing the extreme simplicity and poverty of its times and setting: the labour involved in netting fish, drawing water or birthing babies, and the casual brutality of Roman occupation. Production design by Fiona Crombie and costumes by Jacqueline Durran emphasise the homespun beige calico and burlap world of the characters, though Greig Fraser's gauzy, gorgeous cinematography gives radiance to the stripped back palette.
There are moments here that feel too quiet, too slow. And Phoenix's Jesus is frankly underwhelming. With matted beard, and looking far older than the 33-year-old historical Messiah, his barely projected sermons and understated 'miracles' of healing are never quite as impressive as the gospels might have us believe. This Jesus suffers from palpable confusion and even self-doubt. And yet perhaps that's point. The real Jesus failed to fulfil the expectations of those who longed for a politicised revolutionary. And yet the revolution he undoubtedly started continues to shape the world, for better or worse. In Mary's escape from domesticity into the life of a religious follower, we see the birth of an escape route open to women in the midst of repressive patriarchal societies - the life of a nun who's allowed to evade biological destiny and pursue a calling more cerebral.