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‘Martha and Mary’ puts spotlight on preventable disease

BrendBlethyn (left) Hilary Swank star HBO movie “Mary Martha.”

Brenda Blethyn (left) and Hilary Swank star in the HBO movie “Mary and Martha.”

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Updated: April 29, 2013 2:54PM

Death brings two women together on a mission of hope in the new HBO movie “Mary and Martha.”

American Mary (Hilary Swank) and Englishwoman Martha (Brenda Blethyn) meet in Africa, after both have lost sons to malaria. They turn their personal loss into a political cause, pushing the U.S. government to provide more aid to fight a preventable disease that claims more than 500,000 children per year.

“The idea of family, loss and unexpected friendships and the twists and turns and curves of life [was] what appealed to me in the beginning,” two-time Oscar winner Swank says. “Once I found out that it’s a completely preventable disease, I could understand why it was part of (writer Richard Curtis’) purpose to try and ... shed more light on the matter.”

The movie repeats at 2:30 and 11:30 p.m. Sunday.

Malaria’s real-life toll inspired Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) to write the film. For years, he has participated in the United Kingdom’s Comic Relief effort to raise funds and awareness for charitable causes including malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes.

“I consider it a good thing to get more information and familiarity about malaria out there, so that if the government says we’re going to give some money to this thing, it rings a bell with people,” he says. But he wanted the film, directed by Phillip Noyce, to be broader.

“It wouldn’t be a worthwhile endeavor if you didn’t hope that it was going to be an interesting, emotional (movie) that deals with issues outside malaria,” including “how you deal with grief and relationships.”

In the film, Mary, an interior designer from Virginia, takes her son George (Lux Haney-Jardine) on an educational adventure in Africa. He dies after being bitten by a mosquito, before Mary can get him treatment. She later meets Martha, whose grown son has died from the disease while teaching in Africa.

They’re bonded by grief, and eventually Mary, supported by her father (James Woods) and Martha, pushes the U.S. government for more aid.

“What I found interesting is how these people from different worlds collide. That friendship is forged profoundly because they understand each other on an unspoken level,” Swank says. It “helps ease that pain.”

Blethyn has seen malaria first-hand, having traveled to Uganda with the “Comic Relief” effort. “It was really heartbreaking. There were people queuing around the block with their small children,” she says.

Curtis says the focus on a couple of victims is meant to bring attention to the larger loss of life. “In [fundraising] films we do, the doctors and nurses and the people are all Africans. I was trying to find a way in,” he says. “In a way, the dramatic shape I chose was to make you care tremendously about the one person from the U.K. and America, and then show you the other lives matter as much.”

Gannett News Service

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