Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Froggatt and Riley... give finely calibrated performances that make you believe not just in the couple's current predicament but in the strength of their bond."

It's easy for films that deal with the onset of sudden disabilities to go wrong. Step too far one way and you're mired in mawkishness, move too far the other and you risk making everything seem clinical and voyeuristic. Writer/director Bill Clark - whose screenplay is based on the real-life story of British couple Tom and Nicola Ray - is too be congratulated for treading carefully, showing restraint and empathy in his depiction of a family devastated by the after effects of blood poisoning (septicaemia) without glossing over the challenges they face.

He takes time to let us get to know Tom (Tom Riley) and Nicola (Joanne Froggatt), who have a refreshingly normal relationship. Pregnant Nicola goes each day to the office while children's writer Tom works from home in between looking after their young daughter (Grace). Clark and his cinematographer Clive Norman gently emphasise this time 'before' using bright colours and flowing camerawork.

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It's a night like any other when Tom feels sick and, presuming it's just a reaction to out-of-date sausages, he heads to bed. But that is where normality ends as he soon finds himself in hospital and, following a slow diagnosis, ravaged by the disease - with the only option radical surgery involving multiple amputation and facial disfigurement. Worse still, perhaps, it is his wife who has to make the decision for him. Tom wakes to a life that has changed overnight even though everyone else in it is the same.

Clark doesn't make light of the challenges the family faces. The relationship stakes are high but are further exacerbated by the lack of any sort of financial safety net. With no insurance, the family faces an uphill struggle to get anything beyond basic prosthetics and the changed circumstances mean that bills start to pile up. The starfish theme that runs through the film may seem a little contrived at first but ultimately offers a rewarding motif.

By maintaining a restrained focus on the family's emotional landscape, Clark keeps things personal, exploring the ways that frustrations can have a domino effect on extended relationships, such as Tom and Nicola's increasingly strained interactions with their respective mother-in-laws (Michele Dotrice and Phoebe Nicolls). One or two plot elements are extraneous, particularly flashbacks to Tom's childhood which feel unnecessary and manipulative in such a generally naturalistic landscape. The acting more than makes up for this, however, with Froggatt and Riley both giving finely calibrated performances that make you believe not just in the couple's current predicament but in the strength of their bond. Froggatt, in particular, pulls her emotions into a focused ball of internalised stress, making them speak at much higher volumes than a simple outburst would. Dotrice is also effortless as Jean, a mass of bustling concern, while Nicolls manages to hang on to humanity in what could have become a caricatured role.

The make-up department, lead by Melissa Lackersteen, deserves high praise for their re-creation of Tom's injuries - I imagine a BAFTA nod will come their way next year. Clark has crafted a film with restrained resonance that highlights a devastating disease while remembering that those who are dealing with it are what's most important.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2016
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Starfish packshot
A couple’s relationship is tested when the husband is struck by a rare disease.
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EIFF 2016

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