Film Review: Mary Magdalene (UK, 2018) does little to cement itself as a worthy biblical epic

Mary Magdalene extends the long list of biblical film adaptations, and with it, brings a competent yet flawed look at one of the most scrutinised and controversial figures surrounding the life of Jesus Christ. While Mary Magdalene brings some refreshing aspects to the table, it also becomes the victim of its own ambition, sacrificing any deep character development in order to focus on the misunderstood relationship between Mary and Jesus.

Lion director Garth Davis pulls no punches, as Mary Magdalene delivers a strong sense of quality. Be it an all star cast of Rooney Mara (Carol, Lion), Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, Walk the Line) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), or an admittedly deep and emotionally stirring soundtrack, Mary Magdalene marries a few elements in such a way that grips you into its intriguing set up, promising to bring light to a religiously disgraced individual. However, these aspects can only carry the film so far, as it soon falls victim to a bloated story, shallow character development and bland payoff. For a film that promises to finally shed the light in Mary Magdalene, it fails to leave its audience with anything that feels important when the credits finally roll.

The story itself follows the titular charter Mary Magdalene played by Rooney Mara, as we enter at a time in her life where she feels more conflicted than ever. As her family has arranged for her to be married, she cannot help but feel she is born for bigger things; to the dismay of her family who perceives this denial as a sign she may be housing demons within, resulting in her family calling a healer to the family home. Enter Jesus Christ, played by Phoenix, who inadvertently inspires Mary to follow him on his life journey. After what seems an interesting setup, it’s at this point the film becomes stale, as the focus shifts over to Phoenix, as his performance is admittedly impressive, bringing a nuanced and fresh version to the character, who plays Jesus more like a hippy than the righteous son of God. While his performance is admirable, Mara’s performance unintentionally takes a back seat, as she cannot outweigh the interesting nature of Christ himself.

The remaining disciples also crumble beneath the weight of Phoenix, with Ejiofor giving an adequate performance as Peter. He brings a valid conflict to the mix, insisting that Mary’s commitment to Christ will be misconstrued, as he undergoes a small character arc which is appreciated considering he is one of the few developed characters in the film. Finally, there is Judas played by Tahar Rahim, and while he is serviceable, he lacks any flavour, overreacting at the fact that Jesus’ teachings are not concrete fact.

Thankfully, Mary Magdalene is a great film to look at, with some great shots of the countryside and sweeping vistas which carry with it an artistic quality that never gets old through the film’s 120 minute runtime. It’s a shame that it can only take the film so far aesthetically, once again taking a back seat to bland character development and a message that never hits as hard as intended.

Overall, Mary Magdalene is a passable film, marred by its uneven character development and historically underwhelming portrayal of the controversial biblical figure. Mary takes backseat way too early, as Phoenix paves the way for yet another generic film revolving around the Son of God.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mary Magdalene is in select theatres nationwide today.