Mary And Martha debuts tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
At first, the off-the-cuff insensitivity that Mary And Martha’s characters persistently exhibit seems benign enough. Mary And Martha is, after all, a made-for-TV melodrama about two mothers that bond after their respective sons die from malaria, and grief does sometimes manifest itself in strange ways. Screenwriter Richard Curtis (Pirate Radio, Love Actually) and director Phillip Noyce (Salt, Clear And Present Danger) do their best to, in the words of Hilary Swank’s Mary, “tell you how it feels to have a personal involvement with malaria.” But while Curtis makes a point of making characters show their grief by gingerly stepping on each other’s toes, Mary And Martha is more of a product of unwitting creative insensitivity than an apt reflection of it.
Throughout Mary and Martha, protagonists tell us how they feel something instead of showing us the extent of their feelings. In a key scene, Mary and Martha (Brenda Blethyn) talk about how guilty they feel about their sons’ deaths over drinks in Mozambique. Speaking about Martha’s son, Mary asks, “Is that easier for you, that he made the mistake, that you didn’t make the mistake?” That question is an innocently unfair one, shifting the focus of Martha’s story away from her dead son Ben (Sam Claflin) back to Mary’s own guilt about the death of Mary’s son George (Lux Haney-Jardine). “I completely blame myself. I am completely to blame,” Swank says. She’s on the verge of tears, making it that much more frustrating that this particular scene ends before she and Martha can have a really revealing conversation. This is unfortunately typical of Mary And Martha, a film where the bond between two grieving parents is cemented with this trite exchange:
Martha:“But didn’t we get lucky bumping into one another?”
Mary: “Didn’t we!”
The sentiment that Curtis is trying to convey is apparent, but it really doesn’t come across.
Curtis and Noyce are nothing if not consistent in their doggedly un-nuanced portrayal of Mary and Martha’s travails. When we first meet Mary, she’s dissatisfied with her son’s schooling. We know this because during her pilates class, she complains that too much of her son’s grade school curriculum is oriented around testing. So when Mary learns that her son is being bullied at school, she takes drastic action. She tells her husband, Peter (Frank Grillo), that she wants to, “go on an adventure,” with George in South Africa, and teach him herself. The idea may seem well-intentioned but whimsical, particularly since Mary initially describes Mozambique as, “nice, but real.” But Mary’s clearly committed to bonding with George, even if George is too absorbed by his iPod, and his Lego-related computer games to notice (kids these days!). Meanwhile, in England, Martha’s twenty-something son Ben wants to teach local children in Mozambique. This worries Martha (she insists that he brings socks!), but she actively supports the idea, unlike her non-committal husband, Charles (Ian Redford). After both Ben and George die, Mary and Martha travel back to Mozambique, and inevitably try to help fight the spread of malaria.
Curtis and Noyce are both blame-worthy for Mary and Martha’s shortcomings because while most pivotal plot points are almost always established through Curtis’s hackneyed dialogue, sometimes they’re established by Noyce’s auto-pilot-like direction. We know that Ben’s tragic death is ostensibly really moving because there’s a generic scene where Mary rushes him to the hospital in slow-motion while a mournful African vocalist sings on the film’s soundtrack. On the plus side, hand-held camerawork during the subsequent, brief hospital footage isn’t too jittery. But, as if to make up for this creative decision, the extremity of this scene is represented by the cameraman’s blurriness. So because Noyce’s cameraman refuses to keep a shot in focus for more than a second or two, we also know that this scene is quite intense!
Noyce is likewise not blameless for signing off on Curtis’ more tacky dialogue, but Curtis’ contributions are definitely more flagrant. He doesn’t seem to trust viewers to either remember details, or just to feel the feelings he’d like them to feel without nakedly asking viewers to feel them. So throughout Mary and Martha, supporting and main characters are equally offensive in their own inoffensive ways. Some examples of this are relatively negligible, like when Micaela (Nokuthula Ledwaba), one of Ben’s colleagues and also his lover, shows Mary and Martha a ward of sick children, and concludes her tour by saying, “And like your sons, Paul has malaria.” Nervousness and/or stress might partially excuse Micaela’s insensitivity (pretty sure they know that their sons’ had malaria, Micaela). But nothing can explain the tackiness of the scene where Peter texts, “He was my son too,” to Mary though she’s just a few feet away from him in another room. Peter may be incredibly sad, but what purpose does having him text his frustration to Mary serve? Is this some weird kind of product placement? Don’t just talk to your loved ones about how aggrieved you are about your dead kid, say it in a text, that kind of thing?
Mary And Martha becomes especially unbearable once Mary is determined to convince a senate sub-committee to devote more money to malaria relief in Africa. The speech she delivers, with the help of Martha and the photos that Ben took of his students, is especially cloying, as it relies heavily on the assumption that knowing that real children with real interests (“Brandon here played the clarinet!”) have died makes increased malaria awareness a necessity. But Mary And Martha’s biggest problems can be seen in the scene where Mary storms out of her pilates class after telling off her fellow soccer mommies, currently kibitzing about their husbands’ new cars. “We spend every minute of our lives angry or obsessed over things that don’t even matter, when I just stood in a room where children are allowed to die of a mosquito bite.” Mary’s probably right, and she may, in fact, care more about real world problems than her peers, but Curtis and Noyce do a piss-poor job of showing it.