Mary Magdalene: Female-Led Bible Story Beats the Odds, Brings the Goods

By Kim Hughes

Rating: B-

Audiences can be forgiven for approaching Mary Magdalene with caution. DVD delete bins (‘member those?) were chockfull of middling-to-terrible movies about that Jesus fella and his knock-kneed cohorts, many from typically dependable directors though notably, few featuring a woman as the central character.

Mara as the Magdalene.

Mara as the Magdalene.

That unique perspective and excellent, understated performances from Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, and Chiwetel Ejiofor elevate director Garth Davis’s (Lion) story of the so-called "apostle to the apostles" who abandoned her family and home to follow a bedraggled but beguiling prophet, witnessing his miracles and eventually, his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.

Davis’s telling of the Magdalene tale is genuinely entertaining, not overly gory, and free of movie-of-the-week embellishments. It corrects the vexing misconception that Mary was a prostitute by simply not addressing it at all (honestly, when would she have had time?) while conjuring the palpable dread of being a woman in what may be charitably described as the archetypal patriarchal era.

Mara plays it low and slow as the title character, drawing from a deep quiver of glances and stares to telegraph first Mary’s confusion at her awakening spirituality and later, her horror at what befalls the founder of Christianity, finely calibrated by Joaquin Phoenix who marshals a satisfying 90s-era grunge aesthetic. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall at any meeting where a manager and her actor discuss playing JC. Is there a role that’s more fraught?)

We don’t learn much about Mary’s inner turmoil but she is nevertheless interesting to watch. Southern Italy and Rome stand in for Judea circa 33 AD; the land parched and weary, pesky Romans inviting a world of hurt upon those seeking alternatives to violence, death and world domination. Ejiofor offers a Peter that is pretty much everything you want in an apostle-cum-saint: wisdom, kindness, and just enough foxiness to make the trailing bands of women scan as believable. Tahar Rahim meanwhile, brings a suitably conflicted Judas to bear.

Mary Magdalene arrives in the lead-up to Easter for a limited run and is clearly targeted to Christians seeking to explore their faith in a novel context, possibly including popcorn and licorice. But you don’t have to be a church-goer to enjoy it. A compelling story that’s well-acted, well-written, and beautifully shot is its own reward. The female perspective is pretty neat, too.

Mary Magdalene. Directed by Garth Davis. Starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Opens April 12 for a one-week engagement at Toronto’s Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas and VIP, Mississauga’s Cineplex Odeon Winston Churchill Cinemas, Vancouver’s International Village, Calgary’s Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market Cinemas, Edmonton’ Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton Cinemas, and Montreal’s Cinéma Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin.