Hilary Swank, left, and Brenda Blethyn in "Mary and Martha." (David Bloomer / HBO )
Richard Curtis is indisputably one of the good ones.
A British screenwriter who helped give the world the comic genius of "Black Adder" and delivered a string of smart rom-com hits including "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Love Actually" while writing for television shows as varied as "Mr. Bean," "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" and "Dr. Who," Curtis is also a founding member of Comic Relief, which, since 1985, has raised almost $1 billion to fight international poverty.
In 2005, his beautifully understated film "The Girl in the Cafe," which also premiered in the U.S. on HBO, combined both interests. An anti-world-hunger romance, it won three Emmys and introduced Americans to Kelly Macdonald. Everyone in the English-speaking world should watch it at least once.
All of which means the bar is high for any Richard Curtis film, and so "Mary and Martha," which premieres Saturday night on HBO, may be forgiven for not clearing it.
Through his work with Comic Relief and personal experience, Curtis became aware of and increasingly horrified by the number of children — 1 million — who die each year from the easily preventable and treatable disease of malaria. And so he wrote a film about two women who, after losing their sons, come together to try to change that.
Perhaps to broaden the film's appeal, he made Mary, the primary character, an American and got Hilary Swank to play her. A two-time Oscar winner, Swank undeniably brings gravitas to "Mary and Martha" that even her costar, two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, who plays Martha, could not.
What Swank doesn't bring is any sort of emotional connection, either to Mary, Mary's son or the audience. Which is a pretty big problem. Swank finds her feet once the despairing mom turns fighter, but that's at least a half-hour in, a long time to ask an audience to wait, especially when those minutes are essentially counting down to a child's death.
"Mary and Martha" opens by establishing the two characters in rather broad strokes — Blethyn's Martha is a working-class, comfy, "kettle's boilin'" mum watching her beloved scapegrace son, Ben (Sam Claflin from "Snow White and the Huntsman"), prepare to take a teaching gig in South Africa. Mary is a rich, uptight, Pilates type, juggling some sort of ill-defined design business with raising her child and keeping her musculature picture perfect.
First she notices that she and her family are spending too much time behind computer screens, then she hears that her son is being bullied. Next thing you know, she's yanking poor old George (Lux Haney-Jardine) out of school so they can reconnect on an adventure. To South Africa.
Curtis may have imagined Mary as one of those endearingly headstrong and impetuous women, and another actor might have been able to pull it off. But Swank, so convincing in many more ambitious roles, is utterly unbelievable as a wife or a mother, treating husband and son as mere pauses in the script between her own lines. It's hard not to see Mary as a bully herself, albeit one with a passport and apparently unlimited funds.
Which would be fine in another sort of movie, but here we are asked to make her loss our own, and Swank makes that absurdly difficult. Mercifully, Blethyn eventually joins her on the screen and is, as ever, simple perfection, needing to do little more than utter two words with an anguished squint to break your heart into 50 million pieces. When the two meet up, "Mary and Martha" begins to transcend the drumbeat of its message.
As the film makes clear, the real tragedy of malaria is that the international community inexplicably refuses to address it in a meaningful way. Curtis' point is irrefutable — while we dither and despair over deaths caused by terrorism and natural disaster, here are 1 million children we know with certainty will die each year, 1 million lives we could save without too much effort.
It's a good message, an important message, one worth repeating as Curtis does each year with Comic Relief and as he does here. It's just too bad the movie isn't better.
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
'Mary and Martha'
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
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