Arts

Mary Magdalene attempts to wash away biblical character's stains of ill repute

Mary Magdalene is a handsomely crafted sermon about spiritual awakening and sacrifice which portrays its central character as a feminist trailblazer rather than repentant prostitute, but it's a tad too reverential for Damon Smith

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the new film of that name

A WOMAN'S most cherished asset – her reputation – is at the mercy of jealous, controlling men in director Garth Davis's revisionist religious drama, which attempts to wash away the stains of ill repute from Jesus's devoted disciple.

Co-written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, Mary Magdalene quietly trades in solemnity, echoing the current battle for parity waged by the Me Too and Time's Up movements through the eyes of a misunderstood heroine at odds with the suffocating conventions of her time.

"I'm not sure that what happens to a woman is of much account here," laments Mary (Rooney Mara), who is portrayed as a much-abused feminist trailblazer rather than the repentant prostitute depicted in western art and literature.

In 2017 Davis shepherded inspirational drama Lion to six Oscar nominations and he reunites with cinematographer Greig Fraser to capture the central character's journey in luminous tones, accompanied by a swollen, lush orchestral score composed by Hildur Gudnadottir and the late Johann Johannsson.

As a handsomely crafted sermon about spiritual awakening and sacrifice, Mary Magdalene preaches to the art house masses with aplomb. Awomen.

Unfortunately, the film observes the title character from such a safe, reverential distance, it's hard to connect with her on an emotional level beyond her soporific words.

The film opens on the coast of Judaea in 33 CE, where Mary of Magdala (Mara) tends the land with her brothers Daniel (Denis Menochet) and Joseph (Ryan Corr) and sister Rachel (Ariane Labed). The patriarchy strongly encourages Mary to submit to the preconceived role of her gender and marry a local man, whose children need a mother.

After much internal wrangling and feverish prayer, Mary defies this edict and brings shame on her kin.

"There is something unnatural inside her," rages Daniel, who roughly marches his sister down to the Sea of Galilee, where she is subjected to an exorcism ritual.

Soon after, Mary meets prophet Jesus Christ (Joaquin Phoenix) and he inspires her to join the ranks of the apostles, including Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas (Tahar Rahim).

As the only woman invited to travel with the prophet, Mary is a divisive figure among Jesus' followers. Regardless, she is repeatedly taken into Jesus's confidence and shares poignant words with his mother, Mary of Nazareth (Irit Sheleg).

"You must prepare yourself, like me, to lose him," tenderly counsels the matriarch as the apostles approach Jerusalem.

Mary Magdalene frames the central character's odyssey within biblical scenes that will be familiar to audiences of all faiths including the raising of Lazarus and the crucifixion.

Mara and Phoenix deliver their lines with softly spoken earnestness, while Rahim teases out sympathy for his conflicted apostle, who will eventually betray Jesus.

The tug of war between tradition and equality plays out far too gently to draw blood.

MARY MAGDALENE (12A, 120 mins) Drama. Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Tahar Rahim, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Denis Menochet, Ryan Corr, Irit Sheleg. Director: Garth Davis

RATING: 6/10

Released: March 16 (UK & Ireland)

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