The opening caption for Starfish is not “Based on a true story”, but “All this is true”. It is a dramatisation of the story of Tom and Nicola Ray, a couple whose life was thrown into turmoil when the former contracted sepsis. It’s a brutal, damaging disease – which cost Tom his arms, legs, and half his face, thanks to some incompetent doctors – and deserves something to raise awareness of its early warning signs. Yet while Starfish could help reduce the number of resultant deaths from the illness – currently standing at around 44,000 a year – it doesn’t quite manage to work as a drama. The film relays the facts of the story with accuracy, but with no framework to hold them in place, with no distance to help its emotional moments land with sufficient power. It is, in other words, too true to be true.
Tom Riley and Joanne Froggatt play Tom and Nicola, a couple who lead an idyllic lifestyle in middle-class suburbia. Tom reads a story to his daughter Grace (Ellie Copping) about starfish in the ocean, creatures who can lose their arms and legs but end up growing them back. With this foreshadowing out the way, the film’s protagonist soon begins suffering from a mysterious illness, that is mistakenly attributed to food poisoning. He ends up in hospital, where he’s initially ignored, then operated on. But it’s too late: he’s permanently disfigured, and Nicola, who’s recently given birth, must bear the burden of financial and personal responsibility.
The narrative of the impact of disability on a family is a very familiar one, but there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as there’s a reason to care. The Elephant Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Rust and Bone, all these basically worked because the characters were the main focus, not the disability. While it might be unfair to hold Starfish to this high standard – it’s a low-budget British film that might be better suited to television – it is important to recognise that it doesn’t work because it doesn’t bother with a second level. Tom and Nicola are the most boring couple in the world before the accident, with almost no interior life beyond some disconnected stuff involving Tom’s father. As such, in spite of some solid performances from Froggatt and Riley, it’s hard to connect with their relentless suffering; it’s an inspiring true story, relayed with little inspiration of its own.
Starfish is released nationwide on 28th October 2016.
Watch the trailer for Starfish here: