“Did you know, that if you take every single person killed in a terrorist act around the world in the last twenty years, and you add to that all the lives lost in the Middle East since 1967 — the 6 Day War — and you add to that every single American life lost in Vietnam, in Korea, and in every single American engagement since then — Iraq, Afghanistan… If you take all those lives and you multiply by two, that’s the number of children that die of malaria every single year,” James Woods gravely intones in “Mary and Martha.” That this audience educating factoid comes during one of the climactic moments of the movie should tell you everything you need to know about the intentions and storytelling choices in this sentimental, misjudged, one-note clunker, that’s yet another wide misstep by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank.
In the film, she plays the Mary of the title, an almost obnoxiously wealthy woman living in Virginia, married to
Bruce Wayne Frank Grillo, an entrepreneur, with her own design business (the house they live in looks like it was ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest) and the doting mother to her somewhat withdrawn pre-teen son, George (Lux Haney-Jardine). Why is he so distant? It turns out he’s being bullied at school, and when school officials won’t really do anything, and her own (embarrassing) intervention doesn’t work either, she packs up George and heads to South Africa for a six-month sojourn. There, she’ll home school him and he’ll be able to get his confidence back.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., Martha (Brenda Blethyn) watches her only son Joe (played with great charisma by Sam Claflin), a young twenty-something who wants to see the world, prepare as he heads to Mozambique to volunteer and work and spend time meeting people new people. Joe is getting ready to leave the nest, and while Martha continues to fuss over him just as she would if he were a child, she has to say goodbye anyway as he heads off on an adventure. But as you can already guess from the title, it won’t be long until Martha meets Mary, but what will unite them?
The answer to that question is: death and coincidence. First, we see George die somewhat horrifically, with a mosquito bite that turns into malaria that turns into convulsions in the ER with the doctors unable to save Mary’s son’s life. After the funeral, Mary heads back to South Africa to seek some closure and just happens to coincidentally run into Martha at a fairly random beach, and after literally two minutes of conversation, they both realize they’ve lost their sons! No way! An instant and unbreakable bond is forged and before you can say “contrived” the two are doing everything they can to help the underprivileged and raise awareness about the preventable disease that claims too many lives, including children. Admirable intentions, right?
Too bad the script by Richard Curtis (“War Horse,” “Notting Hill,” “Love, Actually“) hits every already well worn cliche of the message movie (this is practically a 90-minute charity infomercial movie), with Mary risking her marriage and friendships To Fight For A Cause. But perhaps the most egregious crime of the movie (almost anonymously directed by Phillip Noyce) is that it centers the film’s loss and pain on two well-off Western women, instead of among those who don’t have the luxury of putting their lives on hold to find themselves, and figure out what to do with such devastating heartache. The film borders on being offensively dismissive of the very people it’s supposedly trying to raise awareness for. At least three times in the movie, African cuisine is suggested as being inedible in an unfunny and odd running joke, but more crucially, there are no characters from the continent of any real weight or importance.
Bongo Mbutuma plays Mary’s driver on her trips to South Africa, but there is little to define him other than he prefers country and western music over Ladysmith Black Mambazo (something that nearly knocks over Mary in astonishment, because of course, all African people should only listen to African artists, being the implication). Meanwhile, Joe’s brief love interest is little more than a beautiful woman on his arm before he dies off screen (a curious decision given how central he is in the early stages of the movie, and one that perhaps suggests some material was left on the cutting room floor). But mostly, “Mary and Martha” presents a very exoticized Africa, where almost everything that’s not the North American norm is positively kooky. And there’s no shortage of adorable children to lens either…until a handful of them die in some particularly crass narrative and emotional manipulation.
There is really only one great scene in “Mary and Martha,” and unsurprisingly it involves Martha (Blethyn is a great actress, wasted thoroughly on material like this, though she does what she can) and her husband. Arriving in Mozambique to bring her home after she stays on to help at the school where her son was teaching before he died, Martha’s husband Charles (Ian Redford) doesn’t understand what she’s doing there. But instead of a scripted monologue that eventually ties back into fighting malaria, what emerges is wonderful, heartbreaking scene, with Martha realizing her son was the glue that held together a marriage and relationship that had long since faded. This moment suggests a different, and much better, movie about two women who lose sons early and later in life, and how that reorients their existence and relationships. But that’s not the movie we got.
Instead, “Mary and Martha” presents noble crusaders whose efforts wind up mostly redeeming themselves. The film’s big climax comes at an Appropriations Committee hearing, where the government decides on how much aid they’ll give to various charitable causes. As you might expect there are a lot of monologues, and pictures of cute African children shown and tears and the end result? Mary saves her marriage and rekindles her relationship with her distant father (Woods), who called in a political favor that allowed her to speak at the hearing. Martha…well, Martha gets to hang around and continue not going back to the U.K. to face the life she left behind. And the children, women and men still dying? They get the dignity of a pre-credits title card announcing that malaria can be ended in our lifetime if the commitment is there. [D]