Bill Clark’s Starfish adapts the true life story of Tom Ray’s (Tom Riley) struggle to reclaim his life after being diagnosed with a brutal illness that tests him and his family to the limit.
The illness in question is Sepsis which has a really horrific effect on Tom. He finds himself afflicted with it suddenly and loses both of his arms and legs as well as most of his face in order to save his life.
Nothing about this is at all sugarcoated as the brutal reality of the situation is explored in great detail. His wife Nicola (Joanne Froggatt) kes much of the focus here as it is her job to pick up the pieces and raise their young family while looking after Tom. Froggatt does an excellent job portraying a woman pulled in so many different directions while struggling to hold it together. Her constant strength in the face of adversity is inspiring and the way her resolve slowly cracks over the course of the film feels very real. It’s a very visceral representation of how such a situation would affect someone.
Tom Riley also delivers a compelling performance despite most of his screen time involving him being underneath heavy makeup to show the transformation. He realistically conveys the depression and self defeating attitude that might come with an affliction. The arc he goes through feels natural and it was really effective to downplay his role compared to Nicola as it was really her story of coping with the situation.
That’s not to say Tom is completely forgotten about but he does disappear for large stretches of the film and doesn’t become more prominent until towards the end. There is an attempt to justify his reasons for not giving up through a troubled relationship with an absent father in his childhood but it isn’t given enough attention to come across as strongly as it needed to. The story would have benefitted by sticking to being about Nicola dealing with this new reality rather than trying to create a deeper arc for Tom. It felt slightly disjointed when it was attempted because the film had spent so much time on Nicola at that point.
Many powerful scenes can be found throughout the film. I found it really effective when the scenes would linger in silence to let the gravity of what had been said really sink in. I don’t often notice camera work but there was a really effective scene where Nicola was told what it would take to have a chance of saving her husband and the camera was positioned in such a way to make her look really small in the frame. It was an effective way to show how isolated she felt in that moment as well as how small and powerless the revelation makes her feel.
On the other end of the spectrum the film ends with a really well put together sequence that reminds the audience as well as the characters that there is hope and a chance that life is going to be bearable. It’s safe to say that a wide range of emotions are explored throughout the narrative.
There aren’t much in the way of supporting characters but the main ones are Tom’s Mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and Nicola’s Mother, Jean (Michele Dotrice). Jean is a symbol of support who makes sure she is there for her daughter and grandchildren every step of the way where Tom’s Mother is the closest this film gets to an antagonist with her stern judgements and generally difficult personality. She also represents the only tie Tom has to the father he barely knew but she falls by the wayside much of the time. Jean isn’t featured heavily either but her role in the story is an important one.
I had no idea this was based on a true story until the end of the film when some facts about the real people that inspired the film are shown. In many ways this was more effective as I felt that the narrative was taking things to such an extreme which made it all the more impactful when I realised it was true. It’s a very eye opening experience into a serious condition that affects a lot of people with this single example showing how difficult it can be to deal with but also that it is possible if people are dedicated.
A powerful and inspiring fictionalisation of a true story involving a terrible illness that affects a lot of people. Joanne Froggatt and Tom Riley deliver excellent performances showing the hardships that this family endures when trying to deal with their new reality. None of the facts are sugar coated and there are many powerful scenes throughout that really bring the point across. I do think that the film should have remained focused on Nicola’s story rather than trying to bring in an arc for Tom at a late stage but it doesn’t detract from the experience too much. If one of the aims of this film was to raise awareness of how brutal a condition Sepsis can be then it definitely achieves that. This is one that will stick with me for a long time.