So, you’ve just made a successful award-winning drama about a young Indian boy adopted by an Australian family who returns to his homeland some 20 years later in an effort to track down his parents. What do you do next? Well, if you are Lion director Garth Davis, you follow up with one of the most boring films ever to grace a cinema screen. This yawn-inducing historical drama is a pointless waste of every resource that went into making it and it is an insult to the talents of the performers who agreed to be a part of it, although ultimately they only have themselves to blame. It’s not that the performances are bad as such, because Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix are as good as they can be given the material at their disposal; it’s just that neither is really given anything remotely interesting to work with. It’s hard to understand why Davis felt this story needed to be told, although it seems for no other reason than to simply remind everybody that Mary Magdalene (Mara) was a saint, not a sinner; the legend of Mary being a prostitute is vehemently denied in a closing-credits disclaimer just to be sure.
In coastal Judaea (substituted here by Italy’s Puglia region), Mary lives a life of little more than labour and devotion to her Jewish faith. When not tending sheep, casting and retrieving fishing nets in the surf or serving as a midwife, she spends her time in prayer, the fervour of which proves somewhat disquieting for the rest of the community that, of course, operates under a strict patriarchal order. Mara has a luminous on-screen presence and it seems that Davis is amongst those who would think nothing of watching her silently eat pie for eight minutes or so, but that scene from A Ghost Story is an orgy of action compared to anything that Mara’s character gets up to here. A terrific actress who tends to shy away from mainstream fare in selecting her roles (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Una), I guess it is inevitable that sometimes she will pick a project that doesn’t allow her to showcase her considerable talents. In fact Mara spends so much of her time in the early part of the story staring wistfully at who-knows-what that the arrival of Jesus and his Merry Men Apostles brings some welcome relief to the tedium of her life and our viewing experience.
As Jesus, Phoenix is an inspired casting choice and his portrayal of the tortured, hipster-bearded prophet is the only highlight in an otherwise mundane movie. In fact, from this point, Mary takes a back seat in proceedings as she joins Jesus and his posse on their travels. Everything from here on leads to Jesus’ crucifixion outside Jerusalem and his subsequent resurrection, with Mary the first to bear witness to his rebirth. Sure, Phoenix’s Jesus presents as something like a Woodstock-era stoner but that makes for a much more interesting interpretation of a character about whom everything we know is largely speculative and open to interpretation anyway. This Jesus is a tortured soul, physically and mentally drained by the demands of his divinity. The rest of his travelling troupe is largely sidelined by Davis though, with only Peter (Chiwitel Ejiofor) and Judas (Tahar Rahim) given any screen time of note.
Given how tepid this telling is, it seems unlikely Mary Magdalene will attract the level of ‘moral outrage’ that films such as Martin Scorcese’ The Last Temptation of Christ garnered upon release, but that is not to say that people won’t be angry. In fact, I’m sure many will be furious at having given up some of their hard-earned to watch this utterly uninspired piece of digital revisionism in which the titular character does an awful lot of enlightened gazing at her idol (and not much else).