Director Niall Johnson
Starring Rafe Spall, Emilia Fox, Elaine Cassidy, Ross McCormack, Sophie Simnett
Released 25th November 2016
A very personal film, based on the equally personal book of the same name, this is about how a mother left a legacy for her two boys and her husband after dying from cancer. And it’s one that comes with an implicit emotional health warning, because it’s about experiences that touch just about everybody at some time. For me, it was both and my tissues were well used. But I wasn’t the only one getting emotional: you could hear the snuffles among the movie hacks at the screening I attended.
So there won’t be a dry eye in the house for what is easily the British weepie of the year. It’s a cinematic memory box, tracing the relationship of Singe (Rafe Spall) and Kate (Emilia Fox), teenage sweethearts who married and had two boys. It was the family she’d always dreamed off, but the dream was tainted by the older boy being diagnosed with cancer. Although he made a full recovery, it was an experience that left its scars on the family, so when Kate discovered a lump, all the memories came flooding back. The initially hopeful prognosis turned sour when it turned out her illness was untreatable so, in her last months, she prepared for the time when she wouldn’t be there with a bucket list, not for her but for her boys as they grew up. A list that covered experiences, memories and the values she wanted them to have.
The film moves backwards and forwards in time, alternating the early years of their relationship (their younger selves are played by Ross McCormack and Sophie Simnett) with the stages in Kate’s cancer treatment, although the curtain is literally drawn on her final moments. They’re the perfect couple, obviously made for each other to such an extent that, when Singe starts thinking about dating again, you fear he’ll never find another partner. The portrait painted of Kate is a touch too idealised – the perfect mother and wife, loving, generous and selfless – but the film is based on Singe’s book, so we’re seeing her through his eyes and memories.
Both Emilia Fox and Rafe Spall are great choices in their roles, Spall in particular. When he cries – and the tears fall frequently – you want to hug his pain away. Singe is just so likeable, not necessarily the sharpest or most articulate tool in the box, but genuine, caring and a devoted father and husband. You’d kinda forgive him anything.
Aside from the warmth of the main characters, the film does capture some of the realities that go with cancer and bereavement, especially some of the darker humour that they always seem to provoke. Kate acknowledges that “I didn’t think I’d get bigger boobs this way,” after she’s been given her diagnosis, one that brings with it a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. It’s a coping mechanism and one that rings true.
The choice of soundtrack, however, doesn’t help. It’s overly melodramatic, giving the impression that it’s there to wring every last tear out of the audience. In truth, there are scenes that could do without music altogether, Singe’s final rush to the hospital for one. But that’s the only time when the film goes right over the top. It may not be subtle or restrained, but it also stays away from wallowing in sentiment. Ultimately, it’s positive and uplifting. Not unlike Kate herself.
Mum’s List is released on Friday, 25 November and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 24 November.