Released in the UK just in time for Easter, Lion director Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene offers us a po-faced, would-be-feminist revisionist, New Age Passion Play that seeks to rehabilitate one of the New Testament’s most controversial figures, in the process robbing her of much of the passion that made her so interesting. 

Serious and quietly spiritual, Rooney Mara’s proto-feminist Mary spends her days tending her family’s fishing nets and flock of sheep when not acting as her community’s midwife (Fisherwoman, shepherd AND midwife? Way to lay on the heavy-handed symbolism Garth…) while quietly resisting her family’s attempts to marry her off to a local widower, believing that God has another plan for her. 

After a rather brutal family exorcism/attempted drowning fails to knock some sense into the lass and causes her to take to her bed and refuse to speak to anyone, the family call on passing itinerant prophet and cult leader Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) to cast out the demons insisting she think for herself and remain an old maid. Instead, Jesus finds in Mary an “Apostle of Apostles” and Mary, having finally found a cause to devote her life to, defies her family and joins Jesus and his band of disciples as they travel Judea preaching the Good News, healing the sick and raising the dead. 

But as Passover approaches, tensions among the Apostles, not least between pragmatic revolutionary Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and ecstatic zealot Judas (Tahar Rahim), threaten to tear the group apart even as the promised Kingdom of God appears to be at hand… 

There’s just something about Mary. She’s there in all four Gospels of Christ’s life, identified by name more often than any of his male disciples, marking her out as one of Christ’s most devoted and active disciples. She’s there with him at all the big moments, caring for him, nurturing him. She’s there at his execution, when his most trusted disciples betray and deny him, when they flee and hide, desperate not to share his fate, Mary stays with him through his Crucifixion and death. She’s there when they bury him in his tomb, laying him to rest. And she’s there when he rises again; he appears to her first. It’s Mary who delivers the news of Christ’s Resurrection to Peter and the other Apostles. 

Conspiracy theorists from the Gnostics to the Cathars to today’s Dan Brown fans and Ancient Astronauts believers have claimed her to be Christ’s wife, have claimed that after Christ’s Ascension into Heaven (or return to the Mothership) she travelled to France and settled in Renne-le-Chateau, founding the Merovingian Dynasty. And now, 1500 years after Pope Gregory erroneously identified her as a penitent former prostitute who saw the light, director Garth Davis and co-writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett come riding in to uphold her tarnished honour, reimagining her not as the fallen woman of popular myth but as a headstrong girl standing up to Ancient Galilee’s Patriarchy (well, her dad and her brother anyway), and in the process robbing her of much of the agency that made her an interesting character in the first place. 

I’d love to see a feminist slant on the Christ tale, a radical retelling of the myth from the Magdalene’s point of view, drawing on Gnosticism and the apocryphal Gospel of Mary to reinterpret Christ’s revolutionary teachings while critiquing the traditional utopian vision of spirituality, challenging the accepted patriarchal authority of the dominant male disciples and by extension therefore, the roots of Christianity itself as a religion. Unfortunately Davis’ quietly respectful Mary Magdalene just isn’t that film, tiptoeing around the theological questions and gender issues, going out of it’s way not to cause offence to any Evangelicals wandering the multiplex because God’s Not Dead: The Revenge was sold out. A feminist Mary Magdalene needs to be a fiery ass-kicker, an Amazon warrior for Christ. Instead Davis miscasts Rooney Mara, doe-eyed and muted, far from a feminist icon; like any good romantic heroine who knows her place, her Mary is content to hang around and wait for a man to come and save her from a life of domestic drudgery down on the old homestead (though, in this case, her saviour is the actual Saviour). At least when she was a prostitute, Mary had a proper job. 

Looking like a collision between Charles Manson and a Dalston hipster, Phoenix is slightly better as an emo-Christ who seems constantly on the verge of tears, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and while there’s lots of long, meaningful, wordless glances between him and Mara, there relationship remains, stubbornly, disappointingly chaste, platonic, a marriage of minds rather than a union of bodies, denying both characters their humanity. Chiwetel Ejiofor meanwhile is ill-served both by his incongruous African accent and by a script that requires his Peter to simply be a bonehead, constantly requiring Christ’s actions interpreted for him by Mary, though the extended sequence where he and Mara discover and care for a cave full of dying lepers/plague victims is among the strongest crackling with raw emotion. 

Far and away the best thing about the film however is Tahar Rahim’s practically boyish, sympathetic Judas, a zealous true believer compelled to betray Christ not through greed or villainy but through a misreading of Christ’s intentions, a grieving father and husband who longs for the promised Kingdom of God that will see him reunited with his dead family. Perhaps the most interesting reading of the character since Rip Torn’s in Nicholas Ray’s King Of Kings, Rahim’s confused, idealistic, all too human performance gives us a Judas for our modern secular age.

Shot in a dusty, Mediterranean Summer evening haze by Greig Fraser and boasts a mesmeric soundtrack by Icelandic composers Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson and while some of the bigger moments, the raising of Lazarus and Christ’s assault on the Temple’s moneychangers are stirring and hint at a more interesting film, Mary Magdalene’s ultimately too reverent, too safe. Lacking either the full-on, balls-to-the-wall bombast of Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ or the arty, cerebral playfulness of Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days In The Desert, it’s hard to know just who Mary Magdalene is aimed at.

Well-intentioned and humanist, Mary Magdalene feels more like a Sunday School lesson from a trendy vicar in sandals than the radical feminist reimaging it needs to be.

Movie Review: Mary Magdalene
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