"Mary and Martha" is a little film with a big heart. While well acted and artfully shot, it suffers from message movie traps, which isn't to say I wasn't swept up in its good intentions.
Written by Richard Curtis and directed by Philip Noyce, "Mary and Martha" (7 p.m. CT April 20, HBO; 2.5 stars out of 4) acts as a rallying cry for increasing awareness of the hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths from malaria every year. The Martha character is inspired by the true story of Jo Yirrell, who began campaining with Malaria No More UK after her son died from the disease in Africa. The Mary character is ficitonal, Curtis says in HBO press notes, but many of the events in the film are based on his experiences making documentaries in Africa for the British charity Comic Relief.
In the film, Hilary Swank's Mary is an interior designer from Virginia who takes her son George (Lux Haney-Jardine) on an educational adventure in Africa. He falls ill and dies after being bitten by a mosquito, and Mary is filled with guilt that his death is all her fault. The older Martha accepted that her grown son, Ben (Sam Claflin), would head off to Mozambique to teach kids at an orphanage without ever imagining that he, too, would die of malaria.
Their grief bonding them, they develop a strong friendship that leads to self-reflection, forgiving and eventually activism. Martha returns to Africa to work at the orphanage where Ben died while Mary dips her toe into political action; she wants to push the U.S. government for more aid to fight malaria.
Swank does well as Mary, a highly unlikable and annoying character who the movie spends far too much time with early on. It moves slowly setting up why Mary took George out of school--he was bullied--when it should have started with the meeting of these two women after their tragedies. Their scenes together are the most powerful and ground all the melodrama.
"I'm not really ready to stop being a mother," Martha tells Mary on a visit to Virginia, "but what can a mother without a child actually do?"
Blethyn blew me away.
"Mary and Martha" is not without its problems, however. The movie doesn't develop any of the African characters, although it fleetingly shows the devastating effects malaria has on Africans--through the eyes of Mary and Martha.
When the women speak before a Congressional subcommittee, it starts to stretch credulity. Yet I went with it as the women offered staggering statistics about the number of deaths in Africa due to this preventable disease. Then Martha shows scores of photos of the young African victims.
Cheap emotional manipulation or not, consider might heartstrings tugged. "Mary and Martha" had me at the first image.
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