Phillip Noyce‘s Mary and Martha is debuting so quietly on HBO that it can’t be called a debut — it’s a peek-out. It turned up last night on HBO without a shred of promotion or hoopla, or at least none that I’ve noticed. It’s an issue-driven film (based on a script by Notting Hill and Love Actually‘s Richard Curtis) about the ravages of malaria, and particularly about two moms (Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn) coping with the malaria-caused deaths of their sons in Africa, and about the social and political activism these tragedies bring about.

Right away you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, here we go…a tearjerker that’s going to tell me what a terrible thing it is to lose a child to malaria.” But it’s deeper and sadder and to a certain extent more all-encompassing than that, and so well acted by not only Swank and Blethyn but every last costar and bit player (Frank Grillo, James Woods, Lux Honey-Jardine, Sam Claflin, Sean O’Bryan, Ian Redford) and written with such clarity and finesse that it moves along and just sinks right in without a hint of huffing or puffing…it just happens.

Mary and Martha is clean and direct and earnest as far as the story allows it to go, which is farther than you might expect.

I watched a screener a week or two ago but then I saw it again on HBO last night, and it hit me all over again (and in a sense a bit more this time) how well made it is, how carefully finessed, how exactly right it all feels. Noyce is primarily known for directing big expensive action thrillers and potboilers (Salt, Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games, Dead Calm) as well as somewhat smaller-scaled humanistic dramas (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Catch A Fire, The Quiet American) — this is obviously one of the latter. The material might be a little on-the-nose, but Noyce knows exactly what he’s doing, and there’s just this sense of convergence — a team of clearly talented people have been told to contribute in just the right way.

Is Curtis’s story affecting? Without question. Does the story deliver surprising jolts and turns? Not really. It’s fair to call it somewhat predictable. It’s an instructional drama that doesn’t contain or strike what you’d call a universal chord, except for the element of working through grief. It’s obvious that we’re being set up to feel hurt during the first third of the film as we meet the two sons (Honey-Jardine, Claflin) and wait for the awfulness. But once Swank and Blethyn are on their own, more or less, the film quietly gathers strength. There’s no big knockout punch, but the finale feels whole and reasonably complete.

I could recite the story beat for beat and comment about this and that, but I’m going to let it go at this point.

For what it’s worth, next Thursday (4.25) is World Malaria Day.