Review: 'Mary And Martha' Starring Hilary Swank Plays Like A Dramatized Charity Infomercial

Television
by Kevin Jagernauth
April 20, 2013 11:56 AM
11 Comments
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"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they live in looks like it was ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest) and the doting mother to her somewhat withdrawn pre-teen son, George (Lux Haney-Jardine).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]

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11 Comments

  • Look at the bigger picture | February 21, 2014 6:28 PMReply

    This movie does make the point that until someone is affected by something terrible do they actually care about it. That's how change happens and people become aware of malaria. People like Hilary's character are the one's with money and the one's who have the power to actually get change. They have the real vocies. It sucks but is true. People with money don't want to watch a movie about real Africans suffering from malaria (harsh I know but the reality) they want to see people they can relate to and then they will help the cause/the fight. So in reality this is a good movie and smart premise. There are worse movies and regardless of personal opinions it does help shed light on a very preventable disease. As a "movie critic" you should be smart enough to make that point and realize that instead of being an arrogant a-hole you look at the bigger picture. It might be a sad truth but at least the writer of the movie understood it enough and I would bet this movie did touch some people with money and they donated and became more involved in the fight. The only thing criticized that should have been was them making fun of the food, that was rude of the movie.

  • Ayo | February 14, 2014 12:24 AMReply

    Sorry, I meant to writing that symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea could lead to dehydration, especially in children.

  • Ayo | February 14, 2014 12:21 AMReply

    I watched this movie today and as an African who has had malaria several times, I completely agree with this review. It is not biased, it is on point. I would go as far as to say the movie is a ridiculous one that insults Africans and sheds no light on malaria whatsoever. The writer should stick to what he knows best - writing romantic English comedies which, by the way, he writes with an American audience in mind.

    For Africans, malaria is the equivalent influenza. The fact that so many people die from it is a result of poor healthcare facilities and poor education on the disease, mostly in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods where people resort to natural remedies. They die mostly from the symptoms of malaria, such as high temperatures, which can lead to convulsions, and vomiting, which can lead to diarrhea. Also, a simple case of malaria can very quickly get complicated, for instance if it results in cerebral malaria.

    If you've ever had malaria, you develop some degree of immunity to the disease, though there are different strains of the disease and some are more difficult to treat. For now, if you want to prevent malaria, you spray your house, sleep under a net if necessary and take anti-malaria pills.

    Malaria is no joke but I personally found influenza harder to cope with and it took me longer to recover. I cannot imagine a film that depicts America as a dangerous place for Africans to visit because of influenza. It would be laughed at. But somehow, this ridiculous BBC movie is now being shown on HBO.

    Forget the cliched scenes like the bus ride and singing children, what annoyed me the most was the writer's failure in the first five minutes of the film to make it clear what country in Africa his characters were. Hilary Swank just kept saying they were in Africa, as if Africa were the game reserve they were in. Imagine her in London talking about being in Europe? How stupid would she sound?

    They were in South Africa! And quite frankly there was no reason to be shocked that they could get pizza there! They had Internet access for heaven's sake!

  • Teresa | August 31, 2013 8:41 PMReply

    Good movie, important topic, and bad review full of biases. Obviously an environmental lefty defending her religion.

  • Sam | May 14, 2013 12:12 PMReply

    I have to agree with Mr. Jagernauth, this movie was transparently manipulative and way too much about poor, sad, pretty, rich white-lady, Hillary Swank (Mary). I particulalry loathed the scene where the tragically "enlightened" Mary confronts her superficial friend about her trivial car problems. I hated every white person in this movie, except for Martha and Ben, because they were all such entitled, self involved a-holes. Yes, malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people on a yearly basis and is totally a cause worth fighting, but these gross, rich white people don't care until one of their own has died. Then it becomes THE issue to fight for. It's not as if serious poverty issues don't exist across town from Mary's house in Virginia. Mary is exactly the sort of person that I can't relate to nor want to. In the end this movie is all about Mary and malaria is just a prop to make her seem noble and not an excessive, American glutton. Yuck.

  • BadReview | April 23, 2013 2:25 PMReply

    This is a bad review. And by that, I mean the author's tone and completely negative attitude. This review, to me, appears to be centered around a need to show people how cleverly critical you can be. However I didn't find any of your comments clever or even remotely interesting. And it shows you are singularly a detractor, which is cowardly and lazy. Find another job, is my suggestion. Your writing stinks worse than your attitude.

  • BadReview | April 23, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    This is a bad review. And by that, I mean the author's tone and completely negative attitude. This review, to me, appears to be centered around a need to show people how cleverly critical you can be. However I didn't find any of your comments clever or even remotely interesting. And it shows you are singularly a detractor, which is cowardly and lazy. Find another job, is my suggestion. Your writing stinks worse than your attitude.

  • BadReview | April 23, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    This is a bad review. And by that, I mean the author's tone and completely negative attitude. This review, to me, appears to be centered around a need to show people how cleverly critical you can be. However I didn't find any of your comments clever or even remotely interesting. And it shows you are singularly a detractor, which is cowardly and lazy. Find another job, is my suggestion. Your writing stinks worse than your attitude.

  • oogle monster | April 22, 2013 10:52 AMReply

    Is it time we take one of her Oscars back and give it to Annette Benning for... everything? Or Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine? Or Carey Mulligan for An Education? Or just give the damn thing to Charlize b/c she deserves a second Oscar for Young Adult.

  • swanksta | April 21, 2013 6:29 PMReply

    Hilary Swank has always been bad. oooo she looks like a boy in this movie, give her an Oscar.

    Also, with a name like hers why did she not just do her thing in porn?

  • Alan B | April 21, 2013 1:00 AMReply

    ... but, but, but Noyce's film features Frank Grillo who is THE MOST EXCITING ACTOR OF HIS AND ANY GENERATION. Don't you understand that Grillo embodies EVERYTHING THAT IS EXCITING ABOUT EVERYTHING AND YOU CAN'T CRITICIZE ANYTHING THAT IS REMOTELY ASSOCIATED WITH THE GREAT ONE?

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