These days it feels like romantic dramas about people with terminal illnesses are ten-a-penny. The Fault in our Stars and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, being notable examples. If there’s an easy way to get the tears flowing, you can be sure it’s the big C. So when you find out what Niall Johnson’s newest film is about, you may let out a small internal sigh, admittedly with a small ray of hope marked out at the prospect of the wonderful Rafe Spall. Based on the true story of a couple from the West Country, originally penned by St John Greene, Singe (Spall) and Kate (Emilia Fox) find out that Kate is suffering from breast cancer which becomes terminal.
The story begins almost immediately after Kate’s passing and is told in a series of flashbacks, going as far back as their first sweet-come-cringe-worthy meeting in a skating rink as teenagers. The list of the title refers to a string of requests that Kate makes before her death in aid of helping Singe to raise their two young sons and continue his life without her. To make the situation all the more poignant, their eldest son has only just recovered from his own arduous struggle with cancer. All in all, it’s a recipe for tears.
Writer-director Niall Johnson hasn’t been a particularly prominent presence on the UK film scene for a while, his biggest hit being Keeping Mum with Maggie Smith and Rowan Atkinson in 2005. However, it almost feels as if he is deliberately not vying for our attention. There is an understated and non-commercial style to his work that means it never feels too maudlin or clichéd. In fact, the performances in Mum’s List are painfully, awkwardly realistic. Rafe Spall does not disappoint and Singe’s character isn’t over-complicated, he’s just a kid who had fallen in love with a girl who he is now going to lose forever. He now must find the drive to keep on going in the face of tragedy; to keep on putting one foot in front of the other.
To be perfectly clear, you will most likely sob constantly from start to finish during this film. However, you won’t feel resentful, as if those tears have been cheated from you with soppy music instead of an actual poignant and emotive storyline. Mum’s List delivers on truthful conversations about life after the loss of a loved one and doesn’t shy away from talking Kate, but also doesn’t render these conversations in a way that is either too abstract or overly dramatic.
They say 1 in 2 people in the UK will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime, and the real reason that cancer films are ten a penny is that almost all of us can relate to them for some reason. Yes, many are sappy and contrived but some, like Mum’s List, can really hit home. So despite reservations, perhaps, we should be grateful for them.
Words by Catherine Bridgman
Mum’s List is out on DVD from the 20th of March