Mary Magdalene: Who are you calling a prostitute?

Review: Rooney Mara is as focused as ever in Garth Davis’s mildly revisionist biblical drama

Mary Magdalene
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Director: Garth Davis
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Denis Menochet, Lubna Azabal
Running Time: 2 hrs 0 mins

It is, in one sense, easy to see what the makers of this mildly revisionist biblical drama were going for. Garth Davis's film is here to inform us – or remind us – that Mary Magdalene was, contrary to the teachings of medieval popes, never described in the gospels as a prostitute.

The explanation is there in black and white at the end of the picture. “You are my witness,” the risen Jesus says elsewhere. So she was. She can also be described as an apostle to the apostles.

That aside, the film-makers’ purpose remains obscure. The picture is peppered with feminist asides, but those philosophies don’t power the narrative as we might expect. Yes, the story is told from Mary’s perspective. Her eyes are, however, always on the Nazarene. Only the most unforgiving of biblical literalists will find reasons to fulminate.

Still, there is space for a well-told version of the New Testament story. Without scaring any horses, Davis, who showed his populist chops on the Oscar-nominated Lion, gets the familiar tale across with lucidity and some grace (it's safe to say spoilers are not an issue here).


Evocative score

Rooney Mara is as focused as ever in the title role. Previous versions of the story, even if they've avoided the sex-worker myth, have felt the need to make an "exotic" of Mary Magdalene.

Barbara Hershey simmered in The Last Temptation of Christ. Monica Bellucci was herself in The Passion of Christ. Chastised by her parents for daring to remain unmarried in her early 20s, this Mary emerges as an intelligent woman able to keep a lid on her emotions.

The casting of Joaquin Phoenix is more inspired still. He has charisma. He speaks the lines with passion. But he also has that hint of embarrassing street lunatic common to so many cult leaders. He may be leading them all to salvation. Then again, he may be leading them to a standoff in Waco.

Shot in dusty, beige Italy by Greig Fraser, the film is easy on the eye, but it would be only just to close with praise for the evocative, throbbing score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Sadly, the great Icelandic composer did not live to see the film's release.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist