Mary Magdalene Film Review

Wasted potential

What does it mean to say a film is boring? That not much happens? Not a whole lot happens in Glen Garry, Glen Ross (1993), in which real estate men fast-talk circles around one another about deals and leads, yet it’s totally engrossing. Waiting for Godot is a play built on the idea of nothing happening, and it also happens to be one of the most enduring plays of all time. Garth Edwards’s Mary Magdalene includes a crucifixion and the restructuring of a well-known figure in Christian theology, yet it’s easily the most boring movie I’ve seen this year.

The film’s staggeringly dull execution isn’t even its most egregious crime. It’s most guilty for taking Rooney Mara, one of the finest American actors working today; Jaoquin Phoenix, a captivating screen presence if nothing else, and possessing the final film score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, teamed up with brilliant Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, only to wind up with a film parents could use to dissuade their children from ever wanting to become filmmakers.

Image via indiewire.com

The sad thing is, I’m convinced there’s a more interesting film in there, somewhere. The story is concerned with Mary Magdalene (Mara), labelled a prostitute in a 6th century sermon by Pope Gregory, an identity with which she’s been stuck, the way a kid is stuck with a nickname he adopts on the first day of school, for hundreds of years.

Screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett tell the story of Mary Magdalene as Jesus Christ (Phoenix) is beginning to be noticed as an outspoken prophet in the village. Mary, a midwife who establishes trust with a young mother-to-be in the opening scenes, is considered by those around her a gifted, hard-working woman. Attuned to the restrictions upon her gender, she gripes to her friend at one point that, as the men go to listen to the prophet’s speeches every day, ‘It must be nice to have that much time on your hands’.

Image via cityhill.london

When Mary breaks down and falls ill, protesting a life of marriage and servitude, she begins to be swayed by Jesus, who comes to visit her. Though the actors speak almost entirely in hushed tones, Mara finds nuance in the stilted dialogue. She is adept at portraying the kinds of inner struggles we conceal from others, and Mara has this way of concealing her character’s most private thoughts from the audience, while telling us all we need to know with her wide, fretful eyes and relaxed smile in moments of happiness.

There are the bare bones of an interesting story, here. A stirring dissenter from the norm sways a group of people, paralleled with the feminist rebellion of a woman who refuses to conform. It all goes wrong, though, when you see that nobody really does anything of any interest. Jesus repeats phrases about peace and faith in God, and when the camera cuts to the astounded, elated looks of his followers—including Judas, played by Tahar Rahim, who looks at Jesus like a toddler eyeing the family Christmas tree flanked with presents—you’re just supposed to accept the effect the prophet’s words are having. Similar to the recent war film 12 Strong, Edwards and co. might be ticking boxes, but they’re doing nothing for the audience.

Image via ritzcinema.com.au

It’s as if, somewhere along the way, there were discrepancies between the two screenwriters.  A thrilling story of spiritual rebellion and a retelling of an old myth begin to emerge, only to be trampled by a plodding adherence to historical accuracy and a sinking feeling that this project was refined to make sure it didn’t offend anyone. Edwards doesn’t do much to liven the action, either. Some wide shots of the glorious Sicilian landscape evoke a kind of divine grandeur, but the rest is standard fare. The only thing worth pointing out is that Edwards knows when to capture Mara’s face—the pivotal emotional moments are all on full display.

There’s nothing really to hate about Mary Magdalene, which is probably why I hated it so much. Movies are spectacles. Even the small, independent pictures and the movies with a message, getting people to sit in a dark room for two hours obliges a filmmaker to get us to feel something. In theory, the film corrects an old prejudice about an important figure; in practice, it causes you not to care.

Feature image via filmandtvnow.com