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Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix star in new Mary Magdalene film

By Sarah Mac Donald - 06 March, 2018

“Mary Magdalene had been marginalised for centuries and we wanted to restore her to her rightful place at the centre of the Jesus story, as a key apostle.”

A new biopic of Mary Magdalene, starring Hollywood actors Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, opens in cinemas across Ireland and the UK on 16 March.

Directed by Gareth Davis, the biblical drama is being promoted as “an authentic and humanistic portrait of one of the most enigmatic and misunderstood spiritual figures in history”.

Written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, ‘Mary Magdalene’ shows how this young woman from Magdala is searching for a new way of living. Defying her traditional family, she joins a new movement led by the charismatic Jesus of Nazareth, played by Joaquin Phoenix. She soon finds herself at the heart of a journey that will lead to Jerusalem and Jesus’ death and resurrection.

According to producer, Iain Canning, the production team felt the female perspective was a new way in to the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The initial script was written by acclaimed playwright Helen Edmundson who came up with the blueprint and drew together all the relevant texts into a narrative.

Writer Philippa Goslett subsequently worked on the script to bring a filmic edge and a little bit more dynamic between the disciples and Mary.

According to producer Emile Sherman, “Mary Magdalene had been marginalised for centuries and we wanted to restore her to her rightful place at the centre of the Jesus story, as a key apostle.”

Talking about her character, Rooney Mara explained, “Most other films about Jesus are solely about him, and this time the film is about Mary Magdalene. We still see all of the things that we’re used to seeing in biblical films, but we see it through her eyes. And seeing it through her eyes, we get to see it in a very different light. Mary Magdalene is known by most people to be a prostitute, which isn’t true; we get to see where she comes from and who she really is.”

In the film, all the disciples have a slightly different understanding of what the Kingdom of God on earth will be or how it will start. Mary’s story shows how she comes to realise that Jesus’ message is about changing from within in order to change the world around us. Mary remains by Jesus’ side through the crucifixion rather then fleeing, like the other disciples.

The debate depicted in the film between Mary and Peter shows Mary’s understanding also centres on Jesus’ message of forgiveness.

According to producer Emile Sherman, “The story we are telling is really one that goes to the heart of all religions, and in fact to all humanity. Mary recognises that the ‘kingdom’, or whatever utopia we are striving for, needs to start within ourselves. Our spirit lies within, and it sits in the same place as love and kindness. Mary’s message is as revolutionary today as it has ever been, and it is one we hope will resonate strongly.”

One of the key resources for the film was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which is not a canonical Gospel. For Chewitel Ejiofor, who plays Peter, this ancient incomplete work, offers a different perspective to the canonical Gospels, “in terms of the fighting, the polemics that are involved in being a disciple and the conflicts that Mary creates, and the different perceptions of what a new beginning means, especially in Jerusalem and especially after the crucifixion.”

Writer Philippa Goslett explains that the story is told out of order with compressed time. Judas in this film has a different motivation from the traditional telling. Speaking ahead of the film’s release, director Gareth Davis explained that one of his big inspirations for the film was Malala Yousafzai.

“There was something about her story that, for me, mirrored Mary’s story. The fact that she was shot in the face by the Taliban because she wanted to go to school, and then won the Nobel Peace Prize and she gave her speech and forgave the Taliban for their actions. That act of forgiveness, that act of love, was something that was at the absolute heart of this film for me. When I read the script, I really thought of how she moved me and how Mary’s story is in her. I connect with that spirituality and that love. I also really loved how the script was very human and very relevant.”

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