Mary Magdalene (2018)

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Are they willing to give up everything to follow God? A young girl (Rooney Mara) from the village of Magdala in Judaea resists the traditional roles of women in society, and takes the opportunity to rebel by following the newly famous Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his disciples which causes division among the men. Meanwhile, Jesus is arousing the ire of the Roman Empire in the form of Herod … It’s easy to be cynical about a film which takes a realistic approach to a two thousand-year old story about an unkempt guy with issues running around all over the shop saving people who didn’t ask for it and performing unbelievable miracles. But at a time of year when the message of peace and goodwill is what it’s all about and when Christians and Jews are being driven from their homelands by the steady vise-like grip of Islamic terror which is simultaneously spreading through white countries beset by irresponsible secularisation and uncontrolled immigration, this is a characterful and necessary representation of the old story. Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s feminist interpretation of a much-maligned woman might be too paradoxically reverent for some, but it’s a compelling study and director Garth Davis paces it so that the crescendo of intimidation until the Resurrection feels natural. Jesus is troubled, Mary is serene. She’s kind of a miracle all on her own, as the opening scene demonstrates, in a tale of a woman trying to break free from those men who would exorcise her demonic wish to be an individual and an apostle.  Johann Johannsson’s final score (with Hildur Guonadottir) is marvellous. You have not weakened us but you weakened Him

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Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert