By Jack Dignan
No matter your religious views, the story of Jesus is no doubt one you’ve heard many times. The rise, fall and resurrection of Christ continues to reappear year after year, constantly finding a home and an audience on the big screen. The Christians, Anglicans, Jews, Scientologists, TCCs, Church of Flying Spaghetti Monsters and Jedi (all legitimate religions, according to Google) have heard this story a thousand times before. So, what’s new this time around? Well, for the first time ever, we see this tale as old as time (no, not that one) from the perspective of beloved religious figure Mary Magdalene… so long as you don’t count the adaptation from 2000.
Mary, here, is played by Rooney Mara, reuniting with Garth Davis, the Australian director of 2016’s Oscar nominee Lion. We begin with her day-to-day life, struggling to fit in and find peace within her family. So, when White-Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) passes through her town with offerings of a better life, one dedicated to God, Mary joins them, leaving her past behind and traveling with Jesus and his disciples on a journey across-country. Together, they preach the word of God and form a connection Jesus hasn’t experienced before, and unfortunately, it’s… well… rather dull.
Like I said, we’ve all heard this story before, and when adapting biblical tales, the filmmakers are automatically forced into a box they can’t escape. You can stay faithful, following word by word the stories we’ve been told for thousands of years, playing it safe but crafting something uninteresting and familiar, or you can change it up, utilizing creative licensing to benefit the film, while also being forced to face the wrath of dedicated Catholics. It’s been done before, but rarely to the satisfaction of the target audience. This is, of course, not to disrespect their religion. Their reactions to change match that of the most avid Star Wars fans, and I still consider myself one of them.
With films like Noah and The Last Temptation of Christ, new spins on these stories were presented, and while personally I enjoyed them both, the general consensus was… less than ordinary. Mary Magdalene does a bit of both. It stays faithful to the overall story beats while trying to subtly change certain elements in order to create a new perspective. So, in that regard, I respect what it tries to do. I like change (in cinema, at least). But Mary Magdalene, as a movie, is so fucking boring. It’s two hours of a brooding Jesus trying to overcome the burden that is being the Son of God, and it’s an interpretation that won’t always sit well with audiences.
Phoenix’s performance is slow and quiet, followed by brief bursts of anger that come off as utterly bonkers and unintentionally hilarious. One scene just moments before his arrest and eventual crucifixion (spoiler alert!) reminded me of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Rooney Mara is excellent as Mary, as is Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Peter, but the constant obsession with slowly whispering every line was quickly putting me to sleep. Their characters raise some new thematic elements to the story, but at the end of the day, it’s still the same story, and I spent the whole two hours counting down until the credits rolled.
If it proves anything, however, it’s that Garth Davis sure can direct. From a filmmaking standpoint, Mary Magdalene is beautiful. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is gorgeous. It may be considered a little too bleak for some, and that’s a fair complaint, but there are some all-timers on display here, and he remains one of the most underrated and best working cinematographers in the industry. But alas, the strong craftsmanship on display does little to win audiences over when the remainder of the film is a slow, boring and forgettable journey I’d struggle to recommend.
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