Starfish (15) | Close-Up Film Review


Dir. Bill Clark, UK, 2016, 95 mins

Cast:  Joanne Froggatt, Tom Riley

 This is a well made and beautifully acted low budget film which tells an interesting and moving real life story.  It is a labour of love by writer/director Clark and his producers, one of whom is Froggatt herself, who all struggled for several years to bring it to the screen.

Tom (Riley) and Nicola (Froggatt) are a happily married couple with a small daughter Grace (Ellie Copping) and another baby on the way.  Tom is a house husband/writer working from home.  Nic is the breadwinner but is about to go on maternity leave.  Then one night Tom is woken by excruciating pains and vomiting.  When Nic gets him to hospital, after a series of delays he is eventually diagnosed with sepsis, a rare and life threatening condition which is destroying his body.  In order to save his life, both his arms and legs are amputated and the lower part of his face removed.  The rest of the story deals with the strain this tragedy puts on their marriage and how the family eventually come to terms with it.

In the early part of the story establishing the couple’s relationship we see Tom as a healthy and good looking young man who adores his wife and daughter.  It is for Grace he creates the Starfish story which gives the film its title.   It is therefore all the more poignant when we see the havoc the disease has wrought on his body and his face.  The moment when he first sees in the mirror the frankly hideous mess that face has become despite “reconstruction” surgery is a moving one.  And that is only the beginning of Tom’s physical and emotional struggle to learn to walk on artificial legs and use artificial hands.   Because Tom’s injuries are neither the result of military service injury nor an industrial accident, there is no insurance payment to help out and the family are also struggling financially and reliant on charitable fund raising.

The physical aspects of Tom’s condition are graphically presented with the help of skilful prosthetics and co-operation from the real life Tom Ray, who acted as body double.  But the main power of the film comes from the finely judged performances of Riley and Froggatt.   Good supporting performances too from Michelle Dotrice as Nic’s well meaning but interfering mother and Phoebe Nicholls as Tom’s rather neurotic mum.

There are some flashbacks where we see Tom as a child with the father who deserted him, his mother and his brothers which, while visually effective, don’t really add a lot to the storytelling, while the film’s eagerness to promote the little known effects of septicaemia does perhaps come over sometimes as a touch evangelical.   But these are very minor reservations about what is a frank, brave and often harrowing piece of storytelling with two excellent central performances.

Review by Carol Allen