Set in the year 33, we meet Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene, struggling to find her purpose in life. She brings shame on her family by refusing an arranged marriage and by praying in a synagogue at a time of her choosing rather than the set time for women.
Believing she is possessed by a devil for her rogue behaviour her family attempt to cast out her demons by nearly drowning her. During her recovery, she is introduced to a rabbi called Jesus who opens her eyes to the possibilities of a new Kingdom to come. Believing she has found her purpose Mary, against her family’s wishes, joins Jesus and his apostles to help bring the word of God to the masses. Her arrival causes conflict within the group, particularly between Peter (an excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas, as Peter feels he’s being pushed out and Jesus’s impact won’t be taken as seriously with a woman present.
What follows are a lot of meaningful, lingering looks, long pauses and a lengthy build up to the last few days of Jesus of Nazareth’s life on earth. The big events leading up to His crucifixion such as the last supper and the events in the Garden of Gethsemane are rushed and lack the emotional impact you would normally associate with them.
Rooney Mara puts in a strong performance as Mary. Whether she’s sympathetically tending to the sick and dying or being an early advocate for women’s rights, she performs her role with gusto, but her character, sadly, takes a backseat to Jesus in the final third of the film. Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus is miscast in a role where he comes across as the love child of The Dude and Hagrid. Looking far more like 43 than 33, his American accent jars amongst the other more appropriate tongues and you can almost hear him muttering, “dude”, at the end of his sentences.
Director Garth Davis offers us an alternate take on Judas Iscariot, played brilliantly by Tahar Rahim. Desperately longing to be reunited with his dead family his reasons for betraying his Master, the one man who can apparently make this happen, are heart-breaking and understandable given the circumstances. Rahim’s thoroughly engaging performance encourages sympathy rather than scorn.
Mary Magdalene is an interesting film with some fine turns, but one that fails to deliver in its overly-long two hour run time.