Mary Magdalene

A rare film that tackles Mary Magdalene's story, featuring an impressive performance from Rooney Mara.
Sarah Ward
Published on March 22, 2018


For someone so pivotal to the story of Jesus, it's surprising how few films have told the tale of Mary Magdalene. The biblical figure has been played by Barbara Hershey, Debra Messing, Monica Bellucci and even PJ Harvey over the years, but she's usually a mere supporting character. More than that, she's frequently painted as a sinner at the very least, and often as a prostitute. Neither proves the case in Mary Magdalene, a contemplative, humanist drama that casts Mary (Rooney Mara) as a woman of determination, devout faith and devotion. In fact, the film proposes that she was Jesus' 13th apostle.

An early line gives a clear indication of the movie's focus: "I can't marry," Mary tells her father; "I'm not made for that life." What follows is an account of someone defying convention, sticking to her own path, and finding strength and solace when Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to town. With her dad and brothers preferring to exorcise her convictions away rather than respect her choices, it doesn't take long for Mary to warm to Jesus' caring and charismatic presence. But his existing offsiders are far from welcoming, with Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) especially wary. In fact, it's Judas (Tahar Rahim) who's actually more accepting.

As such, Mary Magdalene depicts a strong woman breaking free from the shackles of her patriarchal fishing village, and from the expectation that matrimony and motherhood are all she should hope for. The film watches on as she finds a supportive and inspirational companion in Jesus, and as she bears witness to not only his deeds and perspective, but to his worries as well. Still, for all of its ambition — for all of its attempts to recast Mary as a feminist hero while the usual Jesus tale plays out — the movie can't quite decide if it's championing the titular character, or getting lost in her affection for the preacher and religious leader. Of course, you can't tell her story without him, but the balance isn't always right. More often than not, it appears as though Mary Magdalene wants the audience to understand Mary's connection to Jesus more than it seeks to understand Mary herself.

Thank whichever deity you please for Mara, then.  As she demonstrated so emphatically in Carol, she's one of the best actresses of her generation when it comes to conveying a whole world of emotion without saying a word. Her eyes flicker as Mary reacts to Jesus, her posture shifts, and viewers can grasp not only what the character sees in him but how that makes her feel. Phoenix is also impressive, his mumbling take on Christ in keeping with the film's down-to-earth air. This isn't a movie that looks to the heavens to find spiritual meaning, but to people, their actions and the impact their deeds can have.

It's a fitting approach, particularly with Australian filmmaker Garth Davis (Lion) in the director's chair. While a religious tale seems quite the departure from his acclaimed debut, both prove intimate dramas about lost souls searching for fulfilment. Both also share stirring scores and scenic imagery — courtesy of the late, great composer Johann Johannsson (Arrival) and Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Lion), respectively — but movie magic doesn't strike twice. Instead, Mary Magdalene is an intermittently convincing film about belief, rather than a film to believe in.


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