Actors love to think they can play anything, but the job of any half-decent filmmaker is to tell them when they’re not right for a part. If the Rock wants to play Kurt Cobain, try to talk him out of it. Adam Sandler as King Lear is not a great match. And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix. He’s playing Jesus Christ in the new film Mary Magdalene.
In certain situations, Phoenix is a capable actor. I believe he would excel as a meth head, or as a self-hating DMV clerk (possibly with a meth problem). He may make a superb Joker. But Joaquin Phoenix as the Prince of Peace? Here’s a fact the makers of Mary Magdalene seem unaware of: Jesus Christ attracted people to himself. He caused them to love him, listen to him, want to follow wherever he led. One glance at Joaquin Phoenix being morose and anguished and weirdly sinister and the people of Judea would not have said, “Tell us more, teacher.” They would have dialed IX–I–I.
Phoenix’s method-actor version of Jesus — picture Ratso Rizzo in the desert — is a shame because he’s playing opposite Rooney Mara, one of the finest actresses of her generation. She has a quiet, inwardly-lit self-possession that makes her riveting in nearly every role, and she hauntingly embodies Mary Magdalene as a woman who becomes one of Jesus’s followers after undergoing a spiritual crisis that causes a break with her family. She is easily the best element of an otherwise drab film by Garth Davis that falls uneasily between the reverent but overly glossy films about Christ that occasionally appear in theaters before Easter and the revisionist work against which all others are judged, Martin Scorsese’s incendiary but brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ.
So little is said about Mary Magdalene in the Gospels that a feature-length film about her has to be mostly a work of imagination. This film, made three years ago but left cinematically adrift when its planned distributor, the Weinstein Company, foundered, avoids the common conception that the Magdalene was a harlot. Nor does the film portray her as Jesus Christ’s lover or wife. Instead she is a devout Jew working as a midwife and fisherwoman who falls out with her family over the intensity of her need to pray, which is so powerful that she even tries to pray with the men, which women aren’t allowed to do.
The film relies on internal monologue and fantasy imagery to convey the feeling of lostness and confusion in a young woman’s heart and soul. Davis, who made the heartwarming but meretricious Best Picture nominee Lion, invests a respectful, sober script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett with a certain amount of wonderment, but even so, the film is largely inert and dull. The cinematography by Greig Fraser (who shot Rogue One and is currently filming Dune) leans heavily on washed-out gray. Doesn’t the sun shine in Judea? Why does it look so much like London in April?
More important, amid all the visual pallor and internal doubt and whispery inquiry, where is the hope and joy of discovering the Messiah? A film about Jesus Christ could be made as a celebration of salvation or as a document of suffering, but Mary Magdalene isn’t quite either. It seems to borrow more from the unfortunate new tradition of self-scourging, exquisitely restrained indie cinema than from the 2,000-year-old traditions of Christian thought.
The film’s chief interest is in putting a lightly feminist gloss on the Gospels: Mary is effectively the 13th disciple here, as eager for the teachings of the Rabbi, as she calls Jesus, as any of the men but forever the object of suspicions held by Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). That may be a valid point about the historical backgrounding of women and women’s interests, but it’s not developed fully enough to put this film in the same category of daring reconsiderations as Last Temptation. Moreover, though Davis has been saying in interviews that it’s astonishing that no one has ever made a movie like his before, Mary Magdalene was and is a peripheral figure about whom little is known. It is her connection to Christ that makes her special, and her story is ultimately but a footnote to his.