Brenda Blethyn and Hilary Swank are the titular pairing; two bereaved mothers who have lost their boys to the disease. Aspects of the premise are tortured – Swank’s Mary, for example, is painted as a devoted mother, but still seems to have taken her pre-pubescent son into an infected zone without giving him any tablets. But that’s merely a failure of logic. The nub of the problem with ‘Mary and Martha’ is of a more philosophical, less forgiveable nature.
The victims here might be the millions of dying Africans. But they’re ciphers in this scenario: mute, almost incidental benificiaries of Mary and Martha’s journeys towards self-realisation. Presumably, some would argue that viewers need to relate in order to understand. But the victims seriously need a voice here if this film is not to be seen as cultural imperialism masquerading as compassion. There’s nothing wrong with the performances – Blethyn in particular does pained but resilient middle-aged women brilliantly – but the end result is queasy to say the least.