Among the many — too many — themes of Mary Magdalene is the importance of forgiveness. All the harder to bear, then, is that this film is almost unforgivable.
Rooney Mara plays Mary, a young woman in Judaea in 33CE who is unwilling to marry a local widower, Ephraim, and give him the sons he wants. So headstrong is she that her father and brother decide that she must be possessed by a demon, and attempt to exorcise her by drowning it out of her. She runs off — well, you would, wouldn’t you? — and joins an itinerant preacher known, for most of the film, just as the rabbi. The story, then, follows a not entirely unreasonably predictable arc from Mary’s joining of Jesus’ inner circle to his execution and resurrection.
The way the film covers this entirely expected ground, however, is where the problems start. Jesus is depicted as an apocalyptic preacher, but in Joaquin Phoenix’s hands, the character would likely be unable to start an argument, much less a movement so threatening to the Jewish and Roman authorities that he would need crucifying. Instead, he mumbles and gurns his way through ponderous, anachronistic speeches that sound like he has a half-dozen cotton-wool balls in his mouth. Perhaps it’s his uninspiringness that attracts Rooney’s Mary, herself insipid and unsubstantial. At any rate, she finds herself being baptised by the rabbi, despite there being no evidence in the gospels to suggest that Jesus ever baptised anyone, and suggestions that he did not baptise (see John 4:1–2).
But then, why let theology or biblical scholarship get in the way of a good story? Well, for a start, it’s not a very good story, for the most part. With the possible exception of Judas (Tahar Rahim), invariably the most interesting of the twelve apostles for narrative purposes, characters are one-dimensional and undeveloped. Ideas from the gospels — the only sources we have to draw on with regard to Mary, and the primary source of any information on which to base a cinematic Jesus — are used in a bizarre way to drive ill-defined narrative goals. In one glaring example, Jesus sends out his apostles to spread the word; the fact that, in the gospels, this episode, usually referred to as the Great Commission, doesn’t happen until after his resurrection (see Matthew 28:16–20) is utterly irrelevant, but then, the episode that director Garth Davis and writers Helena Edmundson and Philippa Goslett send Mary and Peter (a criminally underused Chiwetel Ejiofor, who really needs to have a long, hard word with himself for getting mixed up in the nonsense) on is also utterly irrelevant, the pair of them arriving at a village that has suffered some non-specific scourge and trying to offer a couple of possible survivors water, and then, as far as anyone can tell, leaving them to die because the storyline wasn’t going anywhere, with Mary managing to scare away a Roman soldier on a horse simply by the sheer force of stink-eye.
The story isn’t the only problem, mind. The acting is similarly weak. Mary simpers and whimpers for much of the film, while Phoenix isn’t really quite sure which Jesus he wants to depict, and so puts in any number of different depictions. Sometimes he’s a wide-eyed prophet; sometimes he’s a psychotherapist. It’s an inconsistent, disappointing turn, one which suits quite nicely the overall tone of the film. Worse are the accents. Ejiofor’s Peter is from somewhere in west Africa; at least one of the amorphous mess of apostleness is from Russia; most of the rest of the cast have those vaguely non-specific accents usually labelled “exotic” that get trotted out when actors are called on to play vaguely non-specific “exotic” characters. Jesus, in the meantime, is from California.
Bigger problems lie when you remember that this is a biblical story, based on biblical characters in a biblical story with deeply religious and theological significance. Edmundson, Goslett and Davis appear to agree with writers such as Bart Ehrman, who see Jesus as a social preacher with an apocalyptic message of the Kingdom of God, a message that permeates the first three gospels, but they also make sure to play both sides of the theological game by getting in repeated references from John to being “born anew.” They’re also careful to make sure that they keep their evangelical audience happy by having Jesus end a long description of the Kingdom with a reminder that what really matters is having faith in the Kingdom. Their depiction of Judas as betraying Jesus not for financial gain but to catalyse what they expected would be a military uprising against the Roman occupation of Palestine fits in with a widely-held view of Judas as a sicarius, a dagger-wielding assassin, that likely being the origin of Iscariot. So while the writers clearly have an interest in expanding our understanding of the players involved in Jesus’ death and the events leading up to it, they show much less concern for anything resembling a reading of the source texts that actually reflects Mary’s role in Jesus’ life. It’s clear from the gospels that Mary of Magdala was a member of Jesus’ inner circle, and it’s fun to imagine that her absence from narratives in the gospels about events like the Last Supper is simply down to the writers not wanting to mention a woman, rather than an actual absence. But she wasn’t the only woman, indeed the only Mary, among Jesus’ closest followers, despite this film only placing her, and not, say, Mary and Martha, at the meal. The cleansing of the temple, an episode toward the end of Jesus’ life that, within the context of the reading of his life that this film takes, simply suggests that his execution was the inevitable consequence of sticking it to the Judea-Roman Man, is also given a theological layering that is at odds with the image of Jesus purely as social activist, which the Kingdom of God motif promotes — as he watches lambs being led for Passover slaughter, he has a so-brief-as-to-be-nearly-subliminal glimpse of a vision of a crucifixion, just to remind the evangelicals, again, that it’s ok, not to worry, that all that Jesus stuff isn’t what it’s all really about, that Christ was the lamb of God, a reading of the story of Jesus that appears nowhere else in the film and really shouldn’t have been shoehorned in here. And it’s perhaps better if you don’t get me started on what they do to the Lord’s Prayer…
The film’s ending scene suggests a feminist reading of Mary’s role in the gospel story that is intriguing; the idea that her supposed “seven demons” were simply signs of a strong woman is a compelling retelling of her back story. But Davis, Goslett and Edmundson have given us an entirely more disappointing film, and that’s a sin.