Mary Magdalene (3 stars)

Mary Magdalene

Garth Davis's biblical drama, starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, is beautiful and thoughtful, if a touch bland

If there is any appetite for a biblical pic, this is a well-timed, refreshing retelling of the Jesus story from a female perspective. Inspired by the archeological discovery of parchment fragments claiming to be the Gospel of Mary, and by the Catholic Church – after silencing her for centuries, then branding her a prostitute – recently acknowledging St. Mary Magdalene as the first eyewitness to the risen Christ and Apostle to the Apostles, Garth Davis's film is beautiful, thoughtful and realistic. It is at pains to appeal to people of different faiths and to skirt a minefield of potential controversial ideas and conspiracy theories. Lo, therefore it shall be revealed unto you that the worst it can be accused of, by zealots or critics, is that it is a tad bland.

Davis was an artist before he emerged as a fine director (with TV's Top of the Lake and the lovely Lion). His composition is impeccable, his images arresting, and the use of locations (Italy standing in beautifully for Judaea, as it did in Pasolini's masterpiece The Gospel According to St. Matthew) is superb. The screenplay, by British playwright Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, establishes a good context – of a patriarchal, tribal culture in which women are dutifully silent and subservient – and an entirely credible account of Mary leaving the village of Magdala, her family and an arranged marriage to follow a healer-prophet-rabbi whose message stirs her soul.

Rooney Mara carries the film in the title role, initially a woman with no opportunity to express herself. But in Mara's quiet stillness she conveys grace, strength and a fire within. While the men who follow Jesus of Nazareth (notably Chiwetel Ejiofor as a fierce, jealously possessive Peter and Tahar Rahim as a tragic Judas) see in him what they each yearn for – a revolutionary who will free them from Roman occupation, a miracle worker, an end of days harbinger who will take them to paradise – it is Mary alone who understands his message and what he is. There's no romance or snogging or sex, she's purely a true believer. It's very clear why the nature of her faith, and her gender, bug the male disciples.

Jesus, on the other hand, oy vey! Joaquin Phoenix is the most dishevelled, miserable movie Jesus ever. He looks like he's playing Charles Manson. Sleeping rough and trekking deserts, mountains and shores in sandals would make grooming and personal hygiene challenging (although Mary manages somehow to stay dainty and fresh in her fetching hemp tunic). But when he isn't rolling exhaustedly on the ground after his efforts making the blind see or raising the dead he seems a somewhat distant, strange and cryptic a figure to inspire the devotion he does.

Ultimately Mary Magdalene is a restrained, moving version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, if one can embrace its commitment to spare simplicity and spirituality.

General release from Fri 16 Mar.

Mary Magdalene

  • 3 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 2h
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Garth Davis
  • Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor
  • UK release: 16 March 2018

And Mary Magdalene (Mara) went forth from her home village to follow a charismatic healer-prophet-rabbi (Phoenix) whose message stirs her soul. Grace, strength and inner fire did Mara convey, but much dishevelled was Phoenix, even unto resembling Charles Manson. And behold, thoughtful and refreshing was the movie, yet…