Will there be a duller movie this year (or ever?) than Mary Magdalene. Hard to imagine. Please let me know if there is – but don’t show it to me in case I die of boredom. Cinema can really inspire and be a very lifting experience. Sometimes, like today, I left feeling I’d wasted two hours of my life.
The idea of making Mary of Magdala the main focus of the Jesus story is perfectly fine. Ever since a sixth century Pope announced (wrongly) that she had been a prostitute she’s a character who has been misrepresented. Resetting her story is worthy of a movie but I wish it hadn’t been this one.
Director Garth Davis gives us a version of the biblical landscape unlike many well remembered blockbusters of yesteryear where colours were bright and costumes (even for the poor) seemed rather expensive and fine. Just as the depiction of the middle ages as a time of bright green tights and finery was reset by Monty Python’s Holy Grail as grim and dirty so was the biblical story by Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Therefore, there’s no real problem with the ultra realistic look favoured here by director Garth Davis – it’s been around for a while.
However, it’s not just the authenticity but the general look and tone of the movie that are unremittingly bleak and miserable. Yes, life was hard for those living in those lands under Roman rule scraping an existence among the rocky landscapes, but there’s never any variance in tone at all. From the washed out tones of the cinematography across windswept locations to the muted performances it’s just all so desolate and dreary.
Worst of all is Joaquin Phoenix as a rather old looking and distinctly uncharismatic Jesus. Quite what his followers see in him is difficult to work out given that he turns up at towns, mumbles quietly in a croaky voice a few Thoughts of the Day and then people seem to join him for no good reason. There’s underplaying a role and then there’s this – taking some speeches which have survived through the ages and making them sound like someone reading out a shopping list down the phone.
As for Mary herself, we’re on better ground here with Rooney Mara who sparkles in front of the camera despite having almost nothing to work with. Davis clearly has decided that close ups of her eyes and very slowly forming half-smiles breaking out on her face should be the focus and Mara delivers a decent enough performance but her actual character becomes increasingly annoying as the movie progresses. In the attempt to redress some balance between Mary and the other disciples the screenplay goes insanely too far the other way. Throughout the film every decision made by a male disciple is wrong, every thought they voice is wrong, every action demonstrably wrong. Whereas every single thing Mary thinks, says, does is shown to be thoughtful and right. Her character is so perfect that she’s entirely predictable and tiresome and halfway through the movie you know that it’s going to be that way right until the final frame. Which it is. Ludicrously so by the end.
The brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor is wasted as Peter who is scripted as a bit of a misguided fool and it’s only really Tahar Rahim who truly shines as Judas who is given a very sympathetic hearing, backstory and believable justification for the betrayal. In fact, I kept thinking that I was watching a movie about this even more maligned character who at least underwent a cinematic journey, unlike Mary who was unchanging throughout.
All in all, it’s a story which ultimately isn’t worth the telling in this film. The Bible may well be pure myth but it still has some great stories in it. To take those tales and fashion them into something so utterly empty and tedious really is difficult to achieve. And that’s Garth Davis’ only real accomplishment here.