Mary Magdalene (12a)

Dir. Garth Davis

Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Ryan Corr, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina

Reviewed by Matt Adcock (@Cleric20)

“The world will only change as we change. I will not be silent. I will be heard.”

The enduring image of Mary Magdalene has had a tough reputation both in the Church and popular culture – thanks in no small part to Pope Gregory the Great who in the 6th Century proclaimed that she was a prostitute and a sinner. This is despite none of the four gospels saying as much. The name Magdalene is thought to come from the Aramaic word “Magdala” which means “tower” or “elevated” and now, thanks to this new screen adaptation of Christ’s life through her eyes she may finally get some wider redemption.

The writing team of Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett along with director Garth ‘Lion’ Davis present Mary Magdalene as an intelligent, resourceful woman, misunderstood because she refused to conform to the strict male orders in matters like who she was to be married off to. When she decides to leave her family, and follow Jesus, a huge societal ‘no-no’ at the time, some claim that she is possessed by demons. But in a key personal scene with Jesus (which she gets several of), she questions whether there is something truly amiss within her, telling him that if there is, it “must have always been in me”, he simply looks at her and assures that “there are no demons here.”

Rooney ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ Mara brings Mary to life with an intensity and respect that shows her as an intimate witness to many of the biblically recorded events. Jesus (Joaquin ‘You Were Never Really Here’ Phoenix) is presented as thoughtful, just-charismatic-enough and fully human in a restrained performance, a million miles away from the Jesus Christ Superstar persona.

The plot of this Apostle-em-up certainly ticks off many of the well-worn Biblical narrative beats including Christ’s interaction with Lazarus, the money lenders in the temple, and his teaching the crowds. Phoenix depicts Jesus as having moments of very human exhaustion after his miracles which shows how his disciples had practical roles in supporting him.

Speaking of disciples there are strong turns from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter who often bumps heads with Mary, and Tahar Rahim brings a fascinating motivation to his Judas who is painted in a less damning – more misguided light.

Some may baulk at the film’s somewhat sombre tone, find the leisurely pace too slow or the plot overly introspective, but this Mary’s tale makes for a thought-provoking experience which is worth soaking up on the big screen.

Thinking Material: Female Empowerment is Biblical

Mary Magdalene is a film that empowers its female lead character, and at the screening I attended some of the theologians from King’s College were there to explain the authenticity. I got the chance to ask New Testament expert Michelle Fletcher for her thoughts and she explained:

“We know women were disciples, on the road, in crowds, following Jesus. But seldom do we see this. As a New Testament scholar, I spend my time re-inscribing these women and their experiences back into the biblical text. Finally, here is a film that does the same. And refreshingly, this Mary Magdalene is not a post-feminist product for us to consume, but rather a window into another world. She allows us to experience what it would have been like to be a female follower of Jesus in a way that previous bro-fest productions have not. Stunning cinematography and subtle scripting go a long way to facilitate this. Indeed, it is such a visceral production, during which I could almost feel the water on my skin and the damp mist on the ground. And on top of this, it presents a figure who somehow manages to hold in tension the complications of feminist dialogues. That’s a rare thing in cinema, and for a Bible film? Well, it’s definitely something to see, and to celebrate.”

This is certainly Mary’s film and it is her piercing gaze that will stay with you long after the credits roll. I fully enjoyed seeing Mary restored to a position of authority as a key apostle of Jesus and an important element of the early church in her own standing.


3 out of 5 stars
Related Films: The Passion of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Risen

Free Resources

Damaris Media have produced a discussion guide in partnership with Mothers’ Union. Individuals and groups can download the FREE Companion Booklet which explores the issues addressed within the film from a Biblical perspective.