Mary Magdalene Film Review: underwhelming 3/5

Big budget Mary Magadalene, directed by Garth Davis (Lion) and starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix and Chiwetel Ejiofor was released in the UK this Friday. I wrote about this on my blog last week, hoping that it would be very much a film for the #metoo era, rehabilitating this fascinating woman. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so excited to see a film.

Warning, this review contains a few spoilers.

The trailer promised much:


I’m sorry to say that this trailer contained all the best bits of the film!

Mary Magdalene film posterThe film lacks pace and drama – despite its subject matter. It seems to be trying to tell a parallel story to the gospels – Mary Magdalene’s story, this is an admirable aim but is not successful. It starts quite well, depicting Mary living in the small fishing village of Magdala where her family are baffled at her unwillingness to get married and put it down to demon possession. A family member hears about a Healer and Jesus (Phoenix) is sent to heal her alone. He takes one look and says ‘there are no demons here’. Quite an intriguing take on the story that Jesus cast 7 demons from her – but, and this sets the course for the rest of the film – it’s a less compelling take than the story we read in the Gospels themselves!

Mary, controversially, chooses to join Jesus and his disciples and the rest of the film shows the journey to the cross and the resurrection.

For me, the film was full of near misses. Things it gets right are the cinematography, production values, costumes and cast, things that it doesn’t get right are the script and the biblical references – none of them deliver. We are told on the screen that we are entering Cana of Galilee – so I thought ‘ooh, the wedding’. There’s no wedding. Then we see Jesus preaching to a group of women by a well in Samaria – but there’s nothing of that story there.  The raising of Lazarus was so understated I thought it was the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (I only realised it was supposed to be Lazarus when I saw the credits at the end). The triumphal entry to Jerusalem is only signalled by a few people holding feeble palms and looks more like a queue to see a tourist attraction – it has none of the radicalism of the actual Gospel account.

The entrance to the Temple, however, is brilliant (at first), the courtyard is full of people jostling and shouting chants and singing psalms. I particularly liked the fact that you see animals being manhandled by men wearing blood-stained aprons. But then the actual overturning of the money-changers – which you have to admit is an amazing scene when you read it in the Gospels – is completely underwhelming. Jesus has an argument with a priest – they are only speaking face to face, no one else is really paying attention, and he gets dragged away. So disappointing.

The climax of the film should be the resurrection and Mary’s encounter with the Risen Jesus in the garden. Even the resurrection isn’t exciting. You’d do much better to read the account in John chapter 20. There’s so much there for a film maker to use and Davis uses none of it.

I think the film is let down by the poor script and Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus – who seems compelling in the trailer but is not at all in the film – the more compelling characters are Judas and Peter. In fact, Judas’ storyline is stronger than that of Mary and Peter put together. Jesus feels like an incidental part of the story and its hard to see why the disciples want to follow him. There were also only 9 disciples (my husband counted them) which just seemed odd as well.

I liked the way that Jesus’ healing ministry was depicted and also the way the disciples baptise and Mary goes on to baptise women. I liked the use of the Hebrew prayers and psalms throughout in worship. I was incredibly moved by the crucifixion scene and particularly Jesus being taken down from the cross and laid in his mother’s arms. So there were some things the film did well but ultimately I came out of the cinema with that crushing disappointment I’ve only felt when England have crashed out of the World Cup! It had so much promise.

I give it 3/5 stars.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, I thought this review in Empire was spot on:

I might have put you off seeing the film. So as an alternative, if you don’t want to spend £11 (that’s how much my ticket was!) I recommend re-reading the gospels themselves or, if you want to watch a film this Easter, The Miracle Maker (2000) remains for me the best film ever made about Jesus (you can buy it quite cheaply on DVD or watch it online here):





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