Overview: HBO’s press release states thatHilary Swank stars as Mary and Brenda Blethyn stars as Martha, an American interior designer and British housewife who have little in common apart from the one thing they wish they didn’t – both have lost sons to malaria. When the two mothers meet in Africa, they bond over their shared loss while struggling with their grief and the strains on their marriages. Forging a deep friendship, they dedicate themselves to the cause of malaria prevention at great personal cost. Enlisting the help of Mary’s estranged father,(played by James Woods) a prominent politician, the two women beseech both the powers that be and ordinary people to get involved, realizing a shared responsibility to all the world’s children.
The movie is written by Richard Curtis and directed by Philip Noyce. As further embellishment on the piece here is a Behind the Scenes piece.
Expectations: I’m in the mood for a good character driven piece. The type of movie MARY AND MARTHA appears to be is one that takes me back to some of the great HBO Films from the past. Before HBO went with big mini-series and big sensationalistic pictures, like the recent PHIL SPECTOR and the upcoming BEHIND THE CANDELABRA there were smaller impactful films that aired with great regularity. They were works not about big stories but character studies that were just so well made. Three that come to mind that share a similarity to the one I’m reviewing here are IN THE GLOAMING from 1997; MRS’ EVERS’ BOYS from 1997 and SOMETHING THE LORD MADE from 2004.
I already know that I like the work of many involved in this picture. Philip Noyce, whose last movie was Salt, has directed for HBO before. He directed an episode of LUCK and, for those who remember the show, episodes of THE HITCHHIKER in the late ‘80’s. While I’m thinking about it Richard Curtis, who wrote this screenplay, also wrote the HBO Film THE GIRL IN THE CAFÉ and for THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY.
I am also looking for and am sure to receive strong performances from the leading ladies who are also not strangers to HBO. Hilary Swank starred in 2004’s HBO Film IRON JAWED ANGELS and Brenda Blethyn was seen in RKO 281 in 1999. From all previews and sneak peeks this looks like a well done piece and I’m eager to watch.
Review: Upon watching MARY AND MARTHA I can say it is a wonderful picture. No, it really is; it was not a Saturday night wasted. The performances were strong and impassioned. Curtis’s words played right throughout and Noyce shot both the landscapes and the close-ups in such a way as to leave you breathless. His style played well with the actors in the piece. And Swank and Blethyn owned it with just as much passion and depth. They acted strong with every drop of sweat and tear.
Here, however, it what this movie did not have and it is not necessarily a bad omission. The story is clearly about Mary and Martha, the focus is on them as they grieve their loss and bond in their cause. The catalyst that takes the women on this journey could be anything but in this in this case it was malaria. Now, this film could have taken a more blunt approach to make this a message movie about the disease but it chooses a more subtle approach. Title cards could have been employed to hit the viewer with statistics about the deadly malady between scenes. Instead, a few characters wove in some of those startling stats. More scenes could have played out in the halls of government about the cause. Also more medical dialogue about the cause of the disease could have been shown; instead one small scene with one mosquito getting past a net and landing on skin is all it takes. More dialogue in a hospital could have explained the symptoms and the grip of the disease and yet a intense scene is enough.
Even though this is not played out as a medical drama the issue of malaria devastating lives is still strongly felt. The approach taken is effective and Curtis and Noyce are to be applauded for it I think. It is so effective in fact that I have discovered that a number of awareness groups are airing the movie and that MARY AND MARTHA will even have a screening on World Malaria Day – 04.25.
In Conclusion: I must suggest you see this movie. No, it is not a fantasy epic or a slap-happy comedy but it is a rich heartfelt picture in the classic HBO tradition.
Other air dates: 04.25 at 12:15pm & 9:00pm; 04.28 at 3:30pm & 12:30 am; 04.30 at 8:30am & 6:15 pm and a number of times in May plus on HBOGo.
About The Author
Editor at Large of HBOWatch.com and the internet's foremost HBO expert.