Mary And Martha
Welcome to Travelogue Africa, where zebras and giraffes happily traipse through everyone’s backyard, where orphanages are full of grinning kids who eagerly break into song at moment’s notice, and where the black African adults happily serve up food and sage advice to the neurotic white folks that, ultimately, solve the problems that the locals are incapable of fixing.
This type of nonsense might have been acceptable back in the 1950s, but it seems weird and insulting in the context of this new HBO production. However, the antiquated notion of Africa is actually the least offensive of the problems on display here.
Hilary Swank is a rich interior designer who takes her bullied son out of a suburban Virginia school in a melodramatic display of temper and whisks him to South Africa for an "adventure." (Her CEO husband is too busy to worry about their departure.) Swank’s character is amazed that South Africans have Internet access, listen to Nashville music and eat pizza, which gives you an idea of how dim she is.
Brenda Blethyn is the working class British mother of happy rugby-playing hunk Ben (Sam Claflin) - although, to be cruel, she looks more like his grandmother - and she is mildly upset when her son takes off to be a volunteer teacher at a Mozambique orphanage. When she asks why he can’t get a job in France or Belgium, he grins happily at his daffy ol’ mum.
Tragically, both sons fatally contract malaria while in Africa. The women meet, bond, and take it upon themselves to push for malaria prevention across southern Africa.
Swank and Blethyn are, of course, dynamic and charismatic performers. But they are not alchemists, and they are unable to create dramatic energy out of the syrupy situations bubbling throughout Richard Curtis’ connect-the-dots screenplay. Even worse, the film all but absolves the African governments from having the responsibility to provide basic health care for their citizens - this production insinuates that the U.S. government and its European counterparts are intentionally withholding the financial and material aid required to fight malaria in Africa.
If the filmmakers were serious about documenting the devastation created by malaria, they should have taken the documentary approach and allowed the African people to detail their own story. Phony and glossy nonsense like this trivializes a genuine tragedy.