In the year 33CE, the people of Judea await the coming of the Messiah, who will free them of Roman rule and take them to the Kingdom of Heaven. In Magdala, Mary is ostracised for not wanting to marry and for praying in the temple when only the men are allowed there. Lost and distraught, she is visited by Jesus of Nazareth. From then on, her life changes completely. Leaving her family and congregation behind, she joins the followers of Jesus and vows to be with him until the end.
Opening with a beautiful sequence portraying a woman in a pale dress floating through the ocean, every moment of Mary Magdalene is vividly composed, striking and stunning. Cinematographer Greig Fraser – whose impressive and diverse stream of credits include Bright Star, Let Me In, Zero Dark Thirty, Lion (also directed by Garth Davis) and Rogue One – approaches the medium as would a painter. Every shot is imbued with a palette of gorgeous, muted creams and greys, and brought to life by the majestic performances that are central to these compositions.
Rooney Mara takes on the iconic biblical character that is Mary Magdalene with a touching delicacy and finesse, evoking a subtly captivating and empowering female film character. Crucial to this take on the story of Jesus from a female perspective, Mara’s is a performance that may yet prove to be iconic, and is matched only by her breakthrough in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (yes, it even surpasses her turn in Carol).
Joaquin Phoenix is well-suited to the role of Jesus of Nazareth while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) are excellent additions as Peter and Judas. Phoenix captures the gentleness and passion of his role convincingly but there are times when he becomes a bit cartoony. There are also moments when his voice unintentionally recalls his infamous performance as Commodus in Gladiator (which you hardly want to be reminded of in a film like this!).
As a biblical movie, Mary Magdalene incorporates the usual metaphorical speeches and sweeping music you’d expect, but manages to never feel clichéd or derivative. The competition and bitterness stemming from the disciples brings another layer to the film, and while the portrayal of the crucifixion isn’t quite as horrific as in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, it comes close in brutality and bloodiness.
It's difficult to say how well a movie based around religion will do in the modern day, but if you open yourself up to it, Mary Magdalene is rewarding on many levels.