Tom Ray (Tom Riley) has everything a man could seemingly want, a beautiful wife, a doting daughter and a second baby imminently due; however where most love stories end Starfish begins. Children’s author Tom routinely spends his days at home caring for his enraptured first born Grace (Ellie Copping), filling her head with wondrous tales about the magical properties of Starfish and how they can adeptly regenerate any lost limb. Together with breadwinning wife Nicola (Joanne Froggatt) this cosy and devoted trio blissful embody the idyllic family dream.
After a violent bout of crippling stomach pains (which are hastily attributed to a couple of expired sausages), Tom is frantically rushed to A&E where doctors belatedly diagnosis him with sepsis, an organ failure blood poisoning which kills 44,000 people each year. The crushing adversity faced by wife Nicola is nothing short of devastating, with Froggatt’s gut wrenching performance subtly inflected with unsteady trembling hands as she clings to a discreet dignity in attempt to regain control of the little composure she has left. A stoic Nicola signs the life altering operation permissions, granting Tom the radical surgery he needs which consists of a four limb and lower face amputation.
Swathed behind a thick layer of bandages, Tom and his increasingly fractured family struggle to cope with the monumental changes both physically and mentally. Director Bill Clark handles the Rays’ true life story with a calm empathy ensuring the narrative never becomes needlessly voyeuristic or equally too distant. The visceral revelation of Tom’s limb stumps is particularly harrowing with the real Tom Ray standing in as his own body double, alongside seamless visual effects. London’s Millennium FX make up department headed by Melissa Lackersteen recreated Tom’s marring facial injuries with eye wateringly lifelike prosthetics.
Riley’s and Froggatt’s poignant central performances are encompassed in an affecting circle of love, guilt and frustration, that climaxes in a blazing outpour of honest and raw soul bearing. The family’s home life is thrown into a spiral of creeping chaos; bills slowly pile up and in-law relations are on the cusp of turmoil. In amongst the Rays’ continual struggle is the added blow of no financial safety net, ‘Mr Normal’ gets no kind of insurance claim, so the need for charitable fundraising is vital in order to obtain state of the art prosthetic limbs.
Sepia coloured flashbacks to Tom’s turbulent childhood are a redundantly extraneous addition which almost tips the film into unbearably melancholy, with Clark ensuring Starfish to be an all-round bitter pill to swallow. A dynamic British indie that highlights essential human drama in amongst an inconspicuous disease, Starfish packs a potent punch about life’s fragility.
Starfish is in selected UK cinemas now.