It’s next door to impossible to believe the dreadful Mary Magdalene could be the work of Garth Davis, the Australian director who caused a global sensation with the wonderful, award-winning 2016 film Lion. That one was full of life and heart and adventure. The new one is dead on arrival. A disappointing theological follow-up to Lion, it’s dull as dirt.
Rooney Mara, so marvelous as Cate Blanchett’s lover in the unforgettable Carol, is adrift at sea as the Bible’s most wrongly blasphemed character. Her Mary Magdalene is a far cry from the erroneously mislabeled prostitute that Mary is generally accused of being. Her greatest sin in this version of the Passion Play is nonconformity.
MARY MAGDALENE ★
Mary is a sullen, modest Jewish girl who plows the fields, tends the sheep and acts as a midwife to the clueless women in her Judaea community, and shows great displeasure with the world around her. A devout citizen of her village near the sea, she refuses to marry the man her father chooses, which makes her a disgrace. To drive what they consider a demon from her, the men try to drown her.
Desperate for spiritual fulfillment in a man’s world, along comes Jesus of Nazareth, who answers her prayers and shows her the way. This is hard to understand, because the hopelessly miscast Joaquin Phoenix, in long hair and sandals, looks more like a hippie than a prophet, and mumbles with almost total incomprehensibility.
After watching him perform a few ineptly staged miracles, Mary devotes her life to following him wherever he leads. They talk about the coming of “the kingdom” as they hit the road to Jerusalem, but it’s all rather vague and mysterious in the anemic script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, which I guess is supposed to be taken as divinely inspired. Mostly they just climb rocks and look catatonic.
Surprisingly, the villainous, two-faced Judas (Tahar Rahim) is charismatic and handsome, like a young Warren Beatty, as well as the most interesting character in the film. The apostle Peter is played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor.
While Jesus preaches love and forgiveness, his fans label him “Messiah,” which does not go over well with the Roman soldiers under the rule of cruel King Herod. The rest of it is as inevitable as it is familiar. Davis forgets about Mary and concentrates on Jesus, but when Phoenix gets nailed to the cross he treats it so stoically that he might as well be looking for a lost cell phone.
Whole scenes fail to stick together. Each attempt at dialogue resists the one that follows, like water dropped on olive oil. According to this movie, Mary was present to witness the crucifixion and the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. So why is Mary Magdalene more about Jesus than Mary? They both remain enigmas, but Jesus gets more screen time.
If the son of God dedicated his life to building a kingdom of peace and justice for the poor and oppressed, could it be that he was a thumping bore while doing it? Why is he so unexciting in every Biblical epic ever filmed? Couldn’t Jesus be charismatic and engaging at least once at the movies?