Mary Magdalene review: Jesus through a woman's eyes

Everyone knows who Mary Magdalene is – the repentant prostitute who became one of Jesus' most devoted disciples.

Only, of course, she wasn't: that's a myth, given the status of official truth by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century. He was not so great at history: there's no warrant at all in the New Testament for this view. Nevertheless, 'Magdalene' has been a shorthand for 'prostitute' or a morally relaxed woman ever since (hence Ireland's infamous Magdalene laundries where unmarried mothers were used as slave labour).

Rooney Mara plays Mary Magdalene.

Now a new film, Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Carol) as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix (Hotel Rwanda, Walk the Line) as Jesus aims to set the record straight and give us the real Mary – and the real Jesus.

It won't please everyone. Ultra-conservatives are sometimes iffy about any depiction of Jesus on screen at all. For the merely conservative, if he is portrayed, it all has to be ultra-reverential and hew slavishly to the text. This isn't that film. And secularists who want to 'demythologise' the story won't like it for the opposite reason – there are (understated) miracles, and there is a resurrection.

However, there's a lot to like about Mary Magdalene. One of the many good things about it is how it asks intelligent questions about what life might actually have been like for Mary – and writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett have obviously done their homework. She's a woman in a 1st-century village, her role as daughter, wife and mother prescribed from the moment of her birth. She rebels: her family – loving but troubled – think she must be demon-possessed and she's subjected to a brutal exorcism-baptism. And then along comes Jesus. He is a healer and quieter of troubled minds, but a breaker-up of families and threat to every earthly power – including the power of the patriarchy.

Yet another good thing is the cinematography. The film, shot in southern Italy and Sicily, is grittily beautiful. Locations and costumes felt right. I came away thinking, 'Yes, it all might have looked something like that.'

Joaquin Phoenix plays Jesus in 'Mary Magdalene'.

And another is the uniformly strong casting. Rooney Mara is just excellent as Mary, conveying a wide-eyed, tenacious attentiveness: she has found the still centre of her turbulent world, and she's not going to let it go. Joaquin Phoenix's Jesus conveys a charismatic power alongside a deep vulnerability. It's a counter-intuitive bit of casting – he's a big man, and looks older than we think Jesus was, but it works. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Peter as a natural leader out of his depth – and really unhappy about having a woman in the gang. Yes, he's willing to learn from her – but only up to a point. And poor Judas (Tahar Rahim) is brilliant as the damaged fanatic who decides to give destiny a helping hand.

This is, however, Mary's film – and more broadly, it's Jesus seen through the eyes of a female disciple. Jesus' male followers here have agendas of their own. They are convinced they know what he's about, and their 'kingdom' vision involves large-scale politics and social reform. Mary's is – different, and in the hands of these able storytellers, it's far more appealing.

The film is two hours long, and perhaps a little over-long. It's not action-packed, and it's not one for the hard of thinking. It won't be a blockbuster. But if you're a Christian who isn't afraid to be stretched, or an agnostic who wonders what Jesus is all about – or if you just appreciate brilliant acting and a great script – this is one for you.

Mary Magdalene is in UK cinemas from Friday, March 16.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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