Full to the brim with sharp wit, emotional sincerity and overflowing with love, Supernova sees the star power of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci align. Harry Macqueen’s sophomore feature is a slender, pitch-perfect human drama, whose script, direction and arguably career-best performances combine to heart-rending effect.
By no means the first exploration of dementia on film, Supernova once more asks the impossible question of how one mourns a loved one whilst they are still alive. How can preparations be made for when mind, body and spirit leave the vessel which others know and love; when recognition of faces, places and memories slowly slips away? Threatening to U-turn before they’ve even got going, we join Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci) in their trusty camper van on the road, heading north.
“Why didn’t you let me pack for you?” Sam laments, whilst pointing out to his partner, desperately searching, that his reading glasses are on his head. Fiddling with the radio and arguing over whether to use the bossy, Thatcher-esque sat nav or stick with the old-fashioned road map, these two know how to push each other’s buttons. It’s affectionate, playful, but by no means cloying and all bark and no bite. Firth and Tucci hit the ground running with an ease in each other’s company onscreen that makes us believe they could well have been a couple for the many years that Sam and Tusker evidently have.
Forgetfulness and perhaps a lack of organisation may never have been strong points for Tusker throughout his life, but they are worsening now. Wandering off with the dog at a SPAR break and struggling with shirt buttons show signs of a condition accelerating, and it’s something of which both members of this couple are acutely aware. Macqueen’s script is economical, full of wry asides and stiff-upper-lip humour that, in the hands of such accomplished actors, leaves us wanting to laugh and cry simultaneously.
Not ignoring the elephant in the room, but with differing views on how to handle it, Sam and Tusker are more concerned about each other. Again, this selflessness could have played as cliched or trite, but Macqueen demonstrates a remarkable maturity in what is just his second directorial outing to reign in his own material. The determined stoicism of his two leading men catapult our emotions to another level as a result of underplaying the material, of making the best of an unspeakably bad situation. At the close quarters of their van and throughout, the unspoken communication between these actors – and the moments they each must take on their own – is astonishing.
Set in an autumnal Lake District, cinematographer Dick Pope revels in the beauty of a landscape that Sam and Tusker have not visited in a long time, and mercifully allows us the time to take a deep breath between the emotional intensity of close-ups elsewhere. And it is under the auspices of featuring at a piano recital to revive Sam’s long-lost career that Tusker has contrived this journey, one to which he alone knows the destination. At a weekend stay with old friends a dinnertime farewell will not leave a dry eye in the house, but there are practical steps for these two lovers to take and the ultimate decision to make.
Knowing when to say enough is enough is as much of a moral quandary for the filmmaker as his characters, and one that Macqueen handles with great care. Such is the elliptical strength and restraint of Supernova that it holds back, never fully exploding into light. But in spite of that, and from first to last, it shines ever so brightly.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63