This is something of a personal movie for writer/director Niall Johnson, who actually knew St. John Greene (‘Singe’) and his family, on whose story this film is based.
The “Mum’s list” of the title was compiled by Singe from scraps of paper and text messages written by his wife Kate, which he saved after her death from breast cancer. Observations and sometimes instructions – celebrate birthdays, don’t let the children smoke and tell them why not – the list became for him a poignant reminder of his late wife’s personality, sense of humour and love for her family.
The film starts with the grief stricken face of Singe (Spall) in the days after his wife’s death. And it is Spall’s honest and moving performance from that very opening shot, which takes us through the film. The story of Singe and Kate (Fox) is told in flashback, going back to the days when they first meet and fall in love as teenagers and taking us through their twenty year marriage. The marriage, while a happy one, had already had its share of potential tragedy, when their first son Reef (William Stagg) was diagnosed as a baby with cancer but miraculously pulled through. So when Kate is first diagnosed, they are optimistic.
Fox as Kate captures her spirit and humour right through to the end. The idea of a woman leaving what are in effect instructions to her husband on how to handle his life after her death may seem to some a bit bossy – Kate is shown throughout the film as a very strong minded and lively woman from her teenage years – but as delivered by Fox the list is a charming and caring manifestation of her love for her husband and children. Ross McCormack is a convincing match for Spall in the scenes of Singe as a teenager with Sophie Simnett as a lively but not quite so convincing match physically for Kate.
This film is saved from being yet another tear jerking “weepie of the week” by its performances, particularly Spall’s. It is not always a comfortable experience, particularly for those who have experienced cancer or lost someone to the disease. Perhaps it may though conversely prove a cathartic and ultimately positive experience.
Review by Carol Allen