On paper, the notion of doing an origin story of sorts for Mary Magdalene sounds like a sure fire way to mine some box office gold, doubly so if its taken down the obviously-mainstream but still fashionably-artsy route. Alas, once this vaguely novel Biblical tale gets past the initial set up of just quite who its eponymous figure was to begin with, what you’re left with is really “just another Jesus” flick – albeit one packaged with all the faux-artistic worth that typically comes with an Allen key in a blue plastic building.
Yes, Mary Magdalene serves as the flat-pack answer to the relatively fledgling Bible-story subgenre, though it’s made at least five times more insufferable than that sounds purely by virtue of shifting its focus constantly away from the character you’re supposed to be interested in, only to focus instead on long protected sequences you’ve seen executed far in a thousand far better executed features – that phoned-in arthouse sheen never quite up the stylistic level director Garth Davis would presumably hope it is.
For her part, Rooney Mara works a treat as Mary – bringing fearsome grit to what starts as a compellingly gritty feminist origin story, but runs out of steam about twenty minutes in, installing a would-be Jesus Movie DLC pack to compensate for Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s story really not having anywhere to go. It’s so laboured at times, that the film frequently finds itself wandering aimlessly through the desert, which would be less disheartening were it not actually the story of quasi-historical figures genuinely wandering through the desert.
Joaquin Phoenix, meanwhile, makes for a pretty novel Christ – taking on the part with the amusing portrayal of contemporary motivational speakers, an angle you have to admit really has never been thought of before. Sure, he’s at least two decades too old to even begin to make for a plausible JC, but the performance rolls pretty well, even when it does veer periodically into the kind of wholly unnecessary terrain you’d expect to find an acid-tripping John Lennon depicted on.
The unescapable problem, however, is that it’s not Phoenix’s film to begin with, yet nobody involved seems truly capable of remembering that. Mara’s sidelined for far too much of the narrative, with only obligatory cut-back shots every now and again presumably chucked in by the editors when they remembered – in post – that they weren’t working on a film called Jesus Christ. There’s a great Rooney Mara performance in there, but it might have been nice to see some of it in a film that literally bears her character’s name.
Davis though proves the most troubling presence of all, his combining of stylistic elements ultimately resulting in nothing more than the high street version of slick religious iconography. It might have flown, were Edmundson and Goslett’s writing not about as riveting as a YouTube crocheting montage, but in the hands of a script this unwaveringly dull, it only exemplifies just how needlessly pompous and pre-fabbed the whole thing feels. Perhaps it’s biggest slight though is that it’s so surplus to even it’s own requirements, that it makes last year’s thunderingly dull Risen look like The Fugitive by comparison, and there can be no greater sin than that.
Mary Magdalene is in cinemas nationwide from Friday, March 16th; rated 12A. Check out the trailer below.