Mary Magdalene (2018) (Review)

Mary Magdalene is a mystery -- both the titular figure and Garth Davis' biblical drama film based on the 'apostle of the apostles'. As aimless as it is slow, this is a film that is so inoffensive and circumspect that its existence is only justified monetarily, to capitalise on the forthcoming Easter 'celebation' and make everyone involved a little bit of money. As someone who knew very little about Magdalene - or religion full stop, to be honest - before this film started, I was hardly enlightened anymore by the time the credits (eventually) rolled.

According to texts in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is the only person specified by name to witness three events important to the Bible: Jesus' crucifixion, his burial and the discovery that his tomb was empty, as well as believed to be the first person to witness his resurrection. Starring Rooney Mara as the titular apostle and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus of Nazareth, the story documents their spiritual journey to the capital city of Jerusalem, placing a woman widely perceived to be a repellent prostitute at the foreground of the story and debunking the myths that surround her.

No matter your religious viewpoint, the story surrounding Mary Magdalene is intriguing; whether you want to view her as a completely fictional character or a religious symbol, the idea that a woman so interwoven in faith could be so mischaracterised by the masses makes grounds for a thrilling and interesting picture. Alas, the film in question is so inexplicably dull and tedious that it's impossible to feel anything towards it. It only confronts the rumours in the post-script and struggles to provide anything remotely interesting in the two hours that proceed such confrontation.

After those 120 long minutes that make up Davis' new film, I'm no more enlightened about Ms. Magdalene than I was first approaching the screening. Complete with sedate pacing and energy that caused my attention to dwindle rapidly, it's hard to shake that there is no real point to this film -- it lacks a distinct voice or spark or style to make this a worthwhile or satisfying endeavour. Despite a refreshed point-of-view, it seems unsure on who it is targeting; there's no clear audience in mind and it constantly meanders around, as if searching for a direction or objective. There's no pulse or energy to any of it, without dramatic conflict or urgency to fuel the interesting story that goes untouched until those final textual moments.

Many of the faults are down to the screenplay from Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett. While adapting the Bible is surely a daunting task, it's difficult to fathom that they've created something so tiresome from such a fascinating tale. Their screenplay is not assured - they are without a clear audience in mind, with no real message to deliver and no character to any of it - seeped in an ambiguity that prevents any of it really working. The intentionally humanist approach smooths the stories' contour and edge, meaning it is as safe as they come. It's glassy and vacant, an empty shell of a film that is deserving of a richer vision.

Admittedly, the serene scenery and gentle colour palette makes it easier on the eye that it is on your patience but much like Lion, Davis' last effort, there's little else that encourages it to stand out. It's delicately shot to the point where it borders on bland and Davis seems hesitant to commit to anything bold or risky in a visual or narrative capacity. While there are brief moments of powerful filmmaking, it is simply not enough to sustain an otherwise trying experience.

Despite a reliably accomplished performance from Rooney Mara - one that could mistakenly be perceived as empty given the indifference it is surrounded by - and a characteristically gorgeous and emotional score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, no one else is really on-hand to elevate Mary Magdalene. Even Joaquin Phoenix appears disinterested at times, playing Jesus with a disconnected, despondent air at times -- it's an intriguing interpretation, but not always for the right reasons.

But here's the thing: Mary Magdalene is not especially bad, just wildly uninteresting. A biblical epic this is not and it becomes one of the most forgettable films of the year because of a screenplay that has no grasp on aim and intention, its audience or style. Whether that's my non-religious side talking (I'd be interested to hear everyone else's opinion on this film) I'm not sure, but I found no character or energy to anything this film tried to do or say. I was left struggling to find a pulse -- in both the film and myself by the time the closing moments.


Summary: Soul-searching in a soulless film, Mary Magdalene is a difficult film to justify, with no clear intention, style or audience in mind. While (Rooney) Mara brings to Mary a magnetism the rest of the film cannot recreate, you are left questioning why you bothered with a film as unfortunately dull as Mary Magdalene.