Bill Clark’s Starfish tells the harrowing true story of Tom Ray, an ordinary family man who was suddenly struck with sepsis which led to the loss of his lower arms, lower legs and much of his face. It’s an illness that isn’t talked about often and its effects can be devastating or, in many cases, fatal. Clark’s film is effective in raising awareness about the illness while also highlighting the struggle of a real family whose life has been turned upside by this awful affliction.
Tom Riley stars as Tom, a writer and stay-at-home dad who dotes on his young daughter Grace (Ellie Copping). His wife Nic (Joanne Froggat), expecting their second child, has just started maternity leave. The film’s early scenes establish this as a solid, loving relationship and show Tom as a wonderful father but there’s a lack of subtlety; everything is far too idyllic, a hazy representation of a flawless family.
Presumably the reasoning for that is to make what follows even more distressing but given the severity of Tom’s affliction, which strikes suddenly and brutally, there’s no need to exaggerate anything. The film doesn’t sugar-coat the horrors of Tom’s illness though, showing the physical effects in a frank way but still avoiding exploitation. Seeing what has happened to him – his limbs amputated, his face severely altered – is devastating and extremely well-rendered from an effects standpoint.
After the initial shock of the physical effects on Tom, the film delves into the psychological and fiscal toll that this situation takes on both Tom and his family. The film gives at least equal time to Nic as she tries to cope with first pregnancy, then a new baby, while also trying to stay on top of day to day tasks like housework and the school run. On top of that, her maternity leave means the family are left with very little income and bills start to mount up, eventually leading to the family moving in with Nic’s well-meaning mother Jean (Michele Dotrice).
This presents a fractious environment for everyone involved as Tom begins to spiral into a deeper depression. The film is insightful in the way it examines the myriad issues Tom is dealing with, whether it be getting used to a new face or trying to find a way to still be useful to his family and not feel like a burden to them. The weight of this causes him to lash out and drink too much, driving a divide between him and Nic who is barely holding things together.
The performances from both Riley and Froggat are the film’s biggest assets. Though Riley’s face is mostly hidden by prosthetics, he capably charts Tom’s arc from the upbeat father we see in the film’s opening scene to the understandably bitter and resentful man we see later. Froggat is tasked with carrying more of the film’s emotional weight and her performance is at times very moving, particularly a showcase scene at a fundraiser where she pours her heart out to a room full of suits in order to get enough money to get Tom some functioning hands.
As grim as much of this material is, Starfish does head towards a more hopeful conclusion, hinting that a semi-normal life may be in store for this family. The way Clark achieves this however feels overly contrived and seems too big of a step to happen to suddenly. As such, the ending doesn’t have the emotional payoff that the film really deserves but it’s such a well-meaning and ultimately warm-hearted film that it’s easy to forgive some of its weaknesses.