Stars: 3.0 out of 5
Starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Hadas Yaron, Lubna Azabal, Ryan Corr, Tchéky Karyo and Irit Sheleg
Written by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Garth Davis
Rating: PG for violence and scenes of suffering
Runtime: 120 minutes
Now playing at Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton Cinemas
Easter is just around the corner, which means that it’s a good time for a movie that returns many people to stories of the Bible. Mary Magdalene is just that movie for 2019, but it isn’t required viewing. Perhaps director Garth Davis should have taken more time to think about what he wanted to accomplish with the story of the woman regarded as the apostle to the apostles.
Make no mistake. This is indeed a sombre and serious treatment of the figure who plays an important role in the story of Jesus Christ. I’ve always felt she has gotten short shrift in the larger tale. I wonder if it’s possible to make such a film but my opinion is that it would have done her justice to include less Jesus.
The movie takes place in the year 33 AD when the Roman Empire controls Judea. Mary (Rooney Mara, stretching her considerable and growing acting skills) is a woman in a small fishing village who begins to follow Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix). She is said to have been the only one who truly understood his teachings of faith. This, however, leads to considerable conflict between her and her family and other male disciples including Saint Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). If you know the story, Mary follows Jesus as a witness to his crucifixion, burial, and she was even the first to testify to his resurrection.
Mara does a fine job, though I wouldn’t consider it a standout performance. In her hands, Mary is a patient and graceful observer, but Jesus is still the star of the show even though it’s her name on the marquee. I wonder how the film ranks on the Bechdel Test.
The big problem with this film, however, is with Joaquin Phoenix. He is typically a very watchable actor in most of his roles. He has a touch of the Jack Nicholson wild child exuberance that allows him to infuse his performances with marvellously energetic personality. He’s the wrong choice for Jesus Christ. Not that I’m saying that Jim Caviezel was needed here but maybe someone less … interesting.
To try and watch Phoenix sermonizing about the kingdom of God to the small crowds in the open air is like watching a junior high student first try his hand at a monologue for an audition for the school play. It’s not that the words aren’t beautiful. It’s that the speaker doesn’t have a natural feel for it. Not to be too punny about it but I found those scenes excruciatingly bad.
Ridiculously, I did further research on this. It’s not that Mara and Phoenix have chemistry or that they can’t share screentime equally. They can. They’ve been dating for a few years now, which is probably one of the reasons they have acted in three films together, including this one, in the last year alone. This is a gossip-y aside to a film review, I agree, but it bears noting. Couples often make for the best acting partners because of that spark they have together. It isn’t necessary, however, and the practice must be undertaken carefully. Here, she’s perfect and he somehow drags her performance down with his bafflingly amateurish take on Christ. He can rock the beard and robes and all, but I just don’t believe him otherwise.
All in all, I would say to watch this one if you must but pass if you can. Maybe it’s another good opportunity to simply pick up the Bible and think about “loving one’s neighbour” and “judging not lest ye be judged.” That is never time wasted.
As a side note, this is the last score completed by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson before his death. His work always worked marvellously in films with supernatural or spiritual elements. See Arrival or several other of director Denis Villeneuve's films to see, er … hear what I mean. Mary Magdalene is beautiful and sounds beautiful but it still deserved better.