SOMETIMES real life can offer up more harrowing and shocking heartbreak than any fiction could. And that’s most certainly the case with this bold and heartfelt drama from second time writer-director Bill Clark (the little known The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey).
It tells the traumatic true story of Tom Ray (Tom Riley), a talented writer living a pleasant life with his self-employed and heavily pregnant wife Nicola (Joanne Froggatt) and little girl Grace (newcomer Ellie Copping).
But their perfectly normal and happy life is shattered into pieces when one night Tom suddenly comes down with what he first thinks is a bad case of food poisoning and is rushed to hospital with crippling stomach pains. But it soon transpires he actually has an extremely dangerous case of sepsis that results in widespread infection and multiple organ failure, leading to his hands, legs and face being partially amputated.
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After a long stint in hospital, Tom returns home but he and his family struggle to cope with the practicalities, emotional turmoil and financial hardship of his new-found situation.
Clark offers up a restrained, compassionate drama but also one that doesn’t shy away from the toughness of the horrendous situation in which Tom unexpectedly finds himself. There are scenes that are truly hard to watch, particularly when we first see the reality of how Tom now looks; the Millennium FX prosthetics employed to visualise the amputated lips and swollen face is nothing short of extraordinary.
Despite its ultimate glass-half-full outlook, the director is not interested in sugar coating the suffering, both of Tom himself and how it affects those around him. One particularly devastating moment sees Nicola, powerfully played by Froggatt, breaking down in tears and confessing that her husband isn’t the only one going through hell.
There are occasions when it lapses into overstatement, not least in its unnecessary use of stylised flashbacks to emphasise both the couple’s previously rosy marriage and how Tom’s father abandoned him as a child. But it all comes from an honest place and the performances really sell the drama.
It’s first and foremost a story about a family, offering a relatable means for us to cling onto the story and feel invested when one of the most horrendous, unthinkable ordeals is thrown at them. What could have been a mawkish and exploitative exercise is handled with sincerity, tact and above all a deep sense of empathy.
Starfish is showing at Cineworld Renfrew Street and Cineworld Edinburgh.