HBO Premiered 'Mary and Martha' in Time for World Malaria Day

Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn star

Mary and Martha
Mary and Martha

The brutal disparities of global poverty are glaringly apparent when an upper-class American on holiday to Africa suffers the loss of her child to an entirely preventable disease – malaria. This is the story of Mary and Martha, which premiered on HBO Saturday, April 20.

Two-time Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank took on the lead role of Mary. Opposite Swank is Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn as Martha, a British woman who knows firsthand the pain Mary experiences as she, too, loses her son to malaria while he was teaching in Southern Africa. In a chance encounter, they meet, find camaraderie and friendship in their losses, and begin to heal by diving headfirst into the world of malaria prevention and awareness.

Directed by Phillip Noyce (Salt, Clear and Present Danger, The Bone Collector), Mary and Martha also boasts Sam Claflin (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Snow White and the Huntsman) and James Wood as Mary's father, along with several other top-notch actors.

The film was written by Richard Curtis, whose best-known films includeWar Horse, Love Actually, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. As a founding member of, and active participant in, Comic Relief, a British charity that seeks to curb poverty and social injustice, Curtis reportedly wrote the film to bring awareness to the estimated 1 million children die who from malaria every year. World Malaria Day is Thursday April 25, and over the next month, Malaria No More will provide a full course of treatment for a child with malaria for every video view of the HBO Films’ Mary and Martha trailer.

While the intention is admirable and the horrors of preventable child deaths most certainly ought to receive more global attention and financing, the film itself has its own struggles. Mary's family is introduced as a standard issue portrayal of a traditional, upper-class American couple with an only child, and Martha's the British parallel, albeit less affluent. The boys – Mary's young George and Martha's grown Ben – adore their mothers. Mary takes George from school and embarks upon their new journey – education included – in South Africa; Ben travels to teach in Mozambique. Until this point in the film, nothing extraordinary occurs, but the looming anxiety of impending tragedy drives the film straight through the joys of the trips – which are, admittedly, sweet moments that inspire smiles.

Mary's declaration to her husband, "I wanna be an extraordinary mom, so at some point, I'm going to have to do some thing extraordinary" embodies the message of Mary and Martha. Foreshadowing abounds in the film, and parallel lessons about Nelson Mandela and amateur camerawork sprinkle the heartstring cheese atop this story. However, the climatic moment hits early with young George's death from malaria. In this moment, the film effectively resonates and makes the connection that tragedy seems too easy an explanation for the worst pain of a lifetime – something millions of parents experience every year.

Mary and Martha reel from their losses and stumble through answers to Martha's tearful question, “What can a mother without a child actually do?” Both women find their mission: Advocate for the children; prevent and cure malaria. The remainder of the film is captivating, perhaps in part because it taps into humans' innate voyeurism, perhaps because Curtis props open our eyelids to the cause despite the film's missteps.

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Mary and Martha, HBO, malaria, World Malaria Day, poverty, mothers

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