Film Review: "Mary Magdalene" Passionlessly Preaches to the Choir
There’s a couple of potentially neat ideas embedded in the biblical drama Mary Magdalene, director Garth Davis’ second feature after Lion: Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix portraying major biblical figures – Apostle Mary Magdalene and Jesus of Nazareth, respectively – with an air of ethereal fragility; its fresh perspective, with an emphasis on women carrying out and protecting Christ’s legacy and teachings.
I’m agnostic and the furthest thing from a biblical scholar, but I really believe there could’ve been something compelling here if Mary Magdalene wasn’t so undramatic and mercurial; there’s a sense that if you tried to grasp it, you'd be clenching air.
And yet it constantly strives for a grandeur it never does the work to earn, even as Johan Johannsson’s earnest score beseeches and the creamy, handsome tableaux of Jesus and his disciples journeying toward Rome with revolution in their hearts are a little too obvious about the need for your admiration. It’s wimpy and solipsistic; full of itself, vapid. And it utterly wastes Chiwetel Ejiofor, here portraying Peter, to boot. Good luck finding a heart beat, here.
Mary Magdalene’s lack of passion can be traced to its fundamentally lame thesis. If there’s any kind of drive to this project, it’s to defend Mary Magdalene’s reputation; which, for christ sake, is a saintly reputation. It had been common knowledge that Mary Magdalene, a devoted follower of Christ, the last follower to stay with him during his crucifixion and the first to witness his resurrection, was a prostitute. Her whoring days were done however when she encountered Jesus. So it goes. Not so; she was never a prostitute, the film’s final text tells us.
Well, alright. Who was she, though? Outside of being a faithful? Rooney Mara, a captivating actress, has no crayons with which to colour and shade this famous figure. A figure who’s had just about every male fantasy and fear projected onto her: Lover, emotional rock, whore who can't ever quite escape her sinful past. She's equal parts luminous piety and stained lasciviousness. The root word for "maudlin", an insult meant to denote someone as emotionally weak, is "Magdalene". There is some seriously ghastly baggage attached to Mary Magdalene. Unearthing that baggage, really examining it critically and taking it apart artfully, is a worthy endeavour.
But here, none of that baggage is reckoned with, much less glanced at. Why? She has nothing to do but passively listen to this absent-minded hippie and his humanist lectures. Sometimes she provides a lap for his weary head and a couple of sympathetic tears. At the end, she mindlessly parrots back his humanist lectures to the remaining disciples, for what constitutes one sorry-ass climax. "The real kingdom was inside us all along" is the sugary treat this machine ultimately extrudes. In a conservative effort to offend no one, it convinces no one.
Because of this absence of personality or characterisation - of story, of emotional thrust - it doesn’t matter within the context of Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene whether Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or not a prostitute. Lover? Emotional Rock? Whore? All of the above? Who Cares. It's the worst thing you could say about a film this earnest and grave. But sadly it's true.
The meta-narrative and the film’s narrative never coalesce into anything insightful, for all of its good intentions. And to paraphrase famous religious man, Ned Flanders: “My family can’t live in good intentions”.