‘Mary and Martha’ review

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Screening in the run-up to Comic Relief comes this 90-minute drama exploring the effects of malaria on two very different women, the titular Mary and Martha, from Love Actually writer, Richard Curtis.

The BBC/HBO film sees Mary, played by double Oscar-winner Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), take her son George out of school and off to South Africa for an “adventure” together. On the flip side of this plot is Martha, played by double Oscar-nominee Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies), whose son Ben (Sam Claiflin) has gone to Mozambique to teach children.

But tragedy strikes both women as their sons are taken down by malaria, and so begins their journey into seeking raising awareness and, more importantly, funds for the disease.

As you can perhaps tell, this is not your usual work from Richard Curtis. Yes, there are some massively entertaining moments early on and some equally massive laughs but the piece is sombre and tear-inducing at every turn. It’s a film obsessed with grief, understanding and redemption.

Both actresses are superb and hold the piece throughout with their respective emotional journeys; similar but very different. Swank and Blethyn put in performances that display all the skills and engagement deserving of their Oscar nods and wins. If Mary and Martha were a big screen endeavour then we have no doubt that both would have been up for more accolades.

Sam Claiflin (United), in his brief screen time, puts in a wonderfully warm portrayal of healthy young man Ben, volunteering his time to help others. His instant cheeky likability is all the more effective for his loss. American actor Frank Grillo (Prison Break) has the difficult task of playing Mary’s husband, slightly distant and unsympathetic at first but then grief-stricken, full of disbelief and the hollowness that only an untimely death can bring. A subtle and understated realisation from the actor.

Helming the piece is seasoned director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) who brings his cinematic gaze to television. Those familiar with his work such as Rabbit Proof Fence will not be surprised to see just how beautiful the African vistas are; how vibrant the colours and awe-inspiring the scenery is. And just how desolate he can make the palette seem after the deaths. Noyce’s camerawork is as essential as any performance here, juxtaposing beauty with heartache in a breath.

This is a brave piece of work from Richard Curtis, as he plays the emotional strings (something he can do very well) to engage the heart as opposed to cold statistics to assail the brain (something director Noyce toned down, according to the Blackadder writer).

Mary and Martha is a hugely moving and uplifting piece (there were audible tears at the screening we attended) and beautifully crafted. We hope that it does the job and moves the audience enough to get involved in the fight against malaria.

Airs at 8.30pm on Friday 1 March 2013 on BBC One.

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