Reviewed by Rachael Kaines
Mary Magdalene is a disarming portrait of someone who — the film argues — is an often misrepresented figure. This retelling is unashamedly feminist and augmented by astounding performances from both Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. Mary Magdalene is not self-indulgent, self-righteous, or gratuitous, and all the better for it, resulting in a deeply profound and humanist revision to a well-worn history.
The film follows Mary Magdalene from before she meets Jesus — Mary is a non-conforming woman and doesn’t fit well in her traditional, masculine, and hyper doctrinal society. What happens next is a story even the most deeply irreligious people know well, but the incredible script from Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett make the story somehow fresh.
The film is told truly through the lens of Mary, as a woman. Mary is not remotely sexualised, there is no hint of romance between her and JC. The apostles (Chiwetel Ejiofor is particularly good as Peter) come across as something akin to hype men, or as a metaphor for the organised church that would be started by them — concerned more about promoting a message than actually living it. That dichotomy between the humanism and politics plays out between Mary and the apostles, Jesus and the church, this adaptation and other adaptations so seamlessly.
This film is the only depiction of this story that I’ve ever personally found convincing. From a personal angle as an atheist, I always found the story of Christ mostly unconvincing, I couldn’t understand the motivations behind what he did. Mary Magdalene manages the task of making the motivations of this well-known story more understandable and tangible, even down to the motivations of demonised or maligned figures.
The film is quiet and its pace is measured. It is precisely because of this reservedness that allows what feels like a true and more genuine message to shine through, without ever feeling didactic. Most adaptations of this story are made by people with an agenda. Mary Magdalene does have an agenda, but it is rather to reposit the titular character as what she was — the apostle of the apostles, rather than to necessarily convert anyone to anything. It also gives JC the chance to be a feminist, something that feels right with the empathetic nature of his message.
Mary Magdalene is absolutely revisionist. But, it goes a step further, it converts you to its revision, it makes you hope that its version of the story is closer to the truth than any other telling, even the original ones written by some of the men it depicts. This film completely disarmed me, and it made me want to be a better person. Ultimately Mary Magdalene is a masterpiece and enlightening in a way an atheist never thought possible.