Mary and Martha review: Hilary Swank & Brenda Blethyn star in Richard Curtis’ Comic Relief drama

by Matt D

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As we’ve already had a celebrity bake-off and in the middle of another series of Let’s Dance it should come as no surprise to anyone that Comic Relief is on the way. As is always the case the charity has flown out several familiar faces, including Alex Jones and One Direction, to Africa to demonstrate how desperately the charity still needs money in particular so they can keep buying malaria nets. However it appears as if these appeals are not enough and so Comic Relief founding member Richard Curtis has written a one-off drama highlighting how easily malaria can be contracted.

The story focuses on two mothers Hilary Swank’s Mary and Brenda Blethyn’s Martha the former of whom is worried about her son and the latter of whom is seeing her boy go off to Africa to work as a teacher. Mary’s story covers most of the first half hour of the film as we see her worry about her son George when she discovers from one of her friends that he is being bullied at school. Instead of approaching this like a rational person she arrives at her son’s school and threatens both of the bullies essentially embarrassing her son even more while giving the bullies more ammunition when they decide to pick on him again. As Mary gets frustrated with George’s behaviour she decides the only thing she can do is to take him out of school so the pair can go on some sort of big adventure. She eventually convinces her husband Peter to let her take George to South Africa to learn about wildlife and when the pair get there he begins to open up a lot more as he bonds with their African hosts. During the trip Mary and George travel to Mozambique where George sleeps under a mosquito net with a hole in it allowing a mosquito to get through and suck his blood. After that you sort of new where Mary’s story was heading as George started sweating and then lost consciousness just before they arrived at the nearest hospital. After George’s funeral Mary attempts to return to normal life however she feels she has to return to Mozambique for some reason and, while sitting at the cafe where she and her son ate together she meets Martha.

Mary and Martha

Though this is the first time the pair me we actually first encounter Martha as she is seeing her son Ben off for his trip to Mozambique to teach at the local orphanage. We then follow Ben’s journey as he bonds with the kids and falls in love with co-worker Micaela while he even briefly bumps into George and Mary. When Mary and Martha meet again it is revealed that Ben also died of malaria after giving his malaria medication to the children believing they needed it more than he did. Mary decides to accompany Martha to the orphanage to help her clear up Ben’s things including the camera that she bought him for his trip while she also meets and bonds with Micaela. In one of the more obvious scenes of the drama the pair discover that only one room in the orphanage is equipped with malaria nets while they learn that it takes two hours by bus to get to the nearest hospital. As Mary and Martha attempt to save the life of one of the children from the orphanage, by going to the hospital in Mary’s car, they see for themselves the tragedy that malaria can cause and as they both know it is a tragedy that can easily be avoided. While Mary leaves Mozambique, Martha decides to stay at the orphanage and continue the work that Ben started however she eventually leaves when Ben’s replacement is appointed. However, when she learns that Mary is planning to speak to the government about aid for malaria she turns up unexpectedly at her front door.

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Mary’s efforts start when she can’t get the image of dying children out of her head and she becomes increasingly frustrated with her vapid friends who argue about really trivial things. As she sets out on her quest to do something about the level of funds being given to combat malaria she runs into opposition from her congressman and decides the only thing she can do is consult her estranged father who is also a politician. Meanwhile her marriage is crumbling as Peter believes that Mary is burying her head in research in order to alleviate her guilt in some way and in a way feels left out of her new life. When Martha arrives she and Mary decide to pay a visit to Mary’s dad Tom, played by the amazing James Woods, who initially seems quite frosty to their plight but later reveals that he has been doing his research. As you would expect form a drama like this the end sees Mary and Martha give an impassioned plea for more aid to be given to the Africans so that less and less people have to die of malaria.

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I’m torn when trying to write a balanced review of Mary and Martha primarily because it’s a good natured film which has its heart in the right place and has been created for a reason. But at the same time I feel the fact that it has been created primarily as a way to raise funds means that the drama suffers as a result and at times I felt characters were reading statistics from a sheet rather than from a script. It is evident that Richard Curtis clearly cares about getting this message across and to be fair the message came across loud and clear however I feel that the script wasn’t up to his usual standard. I really didn’t warm to Mary all very much and that might have something to do with how she was written but also how she was played by Hilary Swank an actress who can sometimes be amazing and other times can grate on me a little and this time it was the latter. On the other hand Brenda Blethyn was great here, in fact part of the problem is the fact that Martha disappears for a large chunk of the film, playing a woman who has done very little with her life until her son’s death prompts her to spring into action. Of the supporting cast I thought Sam Claflin was fairly energetic as Ben while James Woods was reliably frosty in his few scenes as Mary’s father. Despite the clunky nature of the script I can’t say that the final speech wasn’t moving as I felt myself tearing up despite the fact that I knew I was being manipulated by Curtis’ script.

Overall Mary and Martha is a good-natured film with a fine performance from Blethyn but one that is poorly-paced and suffers from clunky dialogue. I do feel though as if the drama did its job in that I felt I knew exactly why I was donating to Comic Relief this year but at the same time I wonder if the same thing could’ve been done just as well through one of those celebrity-led appeals that we see every year.

What did you think to Mary and Martha? Did you find the dialogue as clunky as I did? Leave Your Comments Below.



  1. tracey perry on March 2, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    why didnt George have any anti maleria tablets before he went to Africa , and if he did perhaps it would have been useful to let the viewer know !so in future we can be more vigulent when travelling to Africa knowing that maybe those tablets dont work?

  2. Gaynor Patterson on March 3, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Can anyone tell me the song & the singers. I loved the song they sang whilst in the 4 wheel drive.

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