“Mary Magdalene” Review

 

Mary-Magdalene-2018.jpgWhether one believes through religious faith or reads it as fiction, the story of Jesus Christ and the crucifixion is one of the best in all of history. It’s unsurprising that filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Mel Gibson have made their own attempts to depict the last days of a figure as open to interpretation as the supposed Son of God. Garth Davis, fresh off the Oscar-nominated Lion, reunites with Rooney Mara to provide his own reimagining by focusing on the perspective of Mary Magdalene and her own relationship with Christ.

Joaquín Phoenix approaches the role of Jesus with an appropriate level of gravitas and commitment, with a presence that is both powerful and comforting without ever resorting to overacting. Mara does fine work exploring Magdalene’s sense of isolation and yearning for truth, justifying why she gravitates to Jesus as she does, but the script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett felt quite flat in justifying this new perspective on a familiar story. Rather than providing a fresh feminist view on the birth of Christianity, the narrative follows the same predictable moments that feature in nearly every story of the crucifixion. It wasn’t until the final scenes that I began to get a sense of why Edmundson and Goslett wanted to explore Magdalene’s understanding of Christ and his teachings, and the most interesting details about her had to be literally spelt out in title cards before the end credits. I did appreciate Tahar Rahim’s take of Judas, a fascinating and complex character in any interpretation, as a man whose adoration of a man turns to resentment due to a profound misunderstanding of his message, and Chiwetel Ejiofor offers a more morally ambiguous take on Peter than usually presented. There’s a diverse mix of races and nationalities playing the apostles, suggesting Davis had opted for colour-blind casting for these religious figures, but having both Mary and Jesus played by traditionally white Mara and Phoenix lets down what could have been an interesting opportunity.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography is easily the strongest part of Mary Magdalene, almost covering up the flatness of the script through exceptionally emotive landscape photography. Filmed in Rome and Southern Italy, Davis and Fraser combine wide-open shots of the Italian countryside and ancient structures to present environments that are both desolate in their emptiness and beautiful in their scope. Davis’ direction and creative editing further gets into the very human psychology of Jesus as he becomes increasingly unstable due to the pressure, fears, and frustrations of his influence and inevitable execution. Yet as strong as the quality of filmmaking is, I can’t really think of any reason to recommend seeing Mary Magdalene. The performances are strong, the cinematography is powerfully expressive, and Davis’s direction is capable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the story offers little surprises. The Easter release was certainly a deliberate move to make the tale feel relevant, but only serves to bury it within the countless other Passion plays. The story moves too slowly when we all know where it’s going, and it never justifies its alternative take on the material. There is definitely more that could be said about the life of Mary Magdalene, but Davis and his team keep things too focused on Jesus’s influence to enable her to speak with her own voice.

3 stars.

“The Secret Scripture” Review

The Secret Scripture

“My name is Rose McNulty. I didn’t kill my child.

These powerful opening lines, delivered over intercut shots of a dishevelled Rooney Mara and a disoriented Vanessa Redgrave backed by Brian Byrne’s haunting celtic soundtrack, suggest that Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture will be an emotionally rich, moving story. Unfortunately, despite a top-notch cast, talented director, and gorgeous landscapes, the film never delivers on its initial potential.

It’s a story of an innocent woman whose life is crushed by pointless cruelty and jealousy, jumping between 1930s Ireland and a mental hospital in the 1980s, and in this regard Vanessa Redgrave makes the film work. As the older Rose McNulty the acting veteran’s face displays a lifetime of pain and confusion, making the most minor details moving and affecting. Rooney Mara continues her streak of excellent performances as the younger Rose in flashbacks, keeping her emotions closely guarded for much of the first half of the film before unleashing both her character’s frustration and passion as the story picks up towards the end. Eric Bana acts as the comfortably sympathetic audience substitute as Dr William Greene, the psychiatrist reassessing Rose’s case before the hospital closes down, and Theo James makes for an impressively intimidating figure as the local priest who becomes an increasingly imposing presence on young Rose’s life.

This is one of those films that should’ve worked, with accomplished director Jim Sheridan using the Irish coast to emphasise the quiet romance and loneliness of the story, but as is often the case even good directing can’t save a bad script. Rose is a particularly passive character for much of the first half of the story, so I had little reason to be connected to her beyond Mara’s own natural screen presence, and the main romance between her character and her supposed ‘one-true-love’ Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor) felt rushed and unexplored. We see more of Rose missing Michael or thinking about her love for him than we do of them actually in love. I could have overlooked these flaws as the film moves in a more tragic direction in the third act, with harrowing scenes of Mara being broken down and effectively ambiguous flashbacks that raise questions as to whether or not the older Rose is remembering the past correctly, if not for an absolutely atrocious ending that goes completely against the entire tone of the rest of the story. Admittedly I haven’t read Sebastian Barry’s novel that served as the influence for the film, so I can’t say whether this ending was a part of it from the beginning or an invention of Sheridan and Johnny Ferguson when they were writing the screenplay, but when it became clear what direction the climax was moving in I had to resist the urge to audibly groan. It’s an insulting, unnecessary twist to a story that didn’t need one, and what’s worse is how Sheridan tries to play it as an uplifting redemptive moment when even the slightest thought to it makes it seems tragic and cruel for more than one character.

Every time The Secret Scripture seems as though it has an affective, emotional story to tell it stumbles and trips over itself, and the final embarrassing face-plant serves only to rob the moments that worked of any lasting impact.

2 and a half stars.