REVIEW – ‘Supernova’ is one of the year’s most emotional experiences

In a curious twist of fate, 2020 finds itself with not one, not two, but three films centred on the debilitating effects of dementia. In July, Natalie Erika James’ Relic painted a terrifying portrait of the disease unlike any seen before. In December, Florian Zeller’s The Father will take your breath away with its unique depiction of an aging mind in total collapse. Thankfully, the third film is somewhat more reserved, yet still equally as powerful.

With his sophomore feature film, Supernova, writer/director Harry Macqueen takes a refreshingly restrained approach to dementia that will still completely shatter your heart. Cemented by magnificent, heartfelt performances from Colin Firth and a career-best Stanley Tucci, Supernova is a tender portrait of love, mortality, and the painful journey of letting go.

Classical pianist Sam (Firth) and acclaimed novelist Tusker (Tucci) are a 60-something couple currently traversing Britain’s gorgeous Lake District region in their cosy motorhome. Playfully bickering like a typical old married couple, the two are taking a road trip to visit old friends and family, while taking in locations they haven’t visited in years on their way to a comeback concert Sam is hesitant to perform.

But there is a darker element to their seemingly nostalgic holiday; Tusker has early onset dementia and the trip is the couple’s last chance to spend some quality time together before the disease truly takes hold. While Tusker is still fully lucid and his self-deprecating humour and acerbic wit remain firmly in-tact, he struggles with mundane tasks and is becoming increasingly exhausted. The inevitable is fast approaching, whether Sam wants to admit it or not.

While the narratives of other films depicting the impact of dementia often show the devastation once the disease has already set in, Macqueen offers something different by exploring the earlier stages and how that affects both the diagnosed and their partner. It gifts Sam and Tusker with rich opportunities to reminisce on the past and grieve for the future, particularly as it becomes clear both parties have differing ideas on how to face the next steps of Tucker’s illness.

Films of this nature have a tendency to fall into melodramatic, sappy farce, but Macqueen refreshingly takes a soft, calm approach to his subject matter. It’s a film that may disappoint those looking for something more bombastically dramatic, but there’s something so impressive about a filmmaker who understands restraint can be just as compelling as extravagance. When the narrative does arrive at its powerful dramatic beats, they hit that much harder by breaking the calmness of the action surrounding them.

There’s an undeniable aura of melancholy hovering over this entire film, especially given we know a happy ending will not be on the menu. But Macqueen wisely refuses to allow his screenplay to dwell in despair, often breaking the sadness with Tusker’s occasionally dark humour and charming sarcasm. It’s a role that fits Tucci like a glove and a magnificent performance that will surely net the actor his second Oscar nomination.

Tucci blesses Tusker with the kind of introspective intelligence he brings to every role, no more evident than in the line, “I’m becoming a passenger, and I’m not a passenger. I want to be remembered for who I was, not who I will become.” Even in moments without dialogue, Tucci is able to express Tusker’s every emotion with his facial expressions and evolving body language. Tucci is always so endlessly loveable, but he knocks it out of the park with this career-best, heartbreaking turn.

Firth is equally impressive in the greatest performance he’s given in almost a decade. With Firth’s usual British stiff upper lip stoicism, Sam is bottling every emotion as he desperately attempts to avoid facing the realisation his partner’s mind will soon evaporate before his eyes. There’s deep sorrow in Firth’s eye, suggesting Sam knows what’s coming, but can bear to consider the thought of losing his beloved Tusker. When Sam finally admits to his crippling fear of being alone, Firth will break your heart. And his closing piano rendition of Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour” (played by Firth himself) concludes proceedings in magnificent style.

Tucci and Firth have been close friends for years, and their effortless, authentic chemistry creates a genuine relationship of two men-of-a-certain-age who are still madly in love with each other. This just makes Tusker’s cruel diagnosis more devastating, given this happy couple will be robbed of their golden years together. It’s also refreshing Macqueen avoids making their sexuality a plot point or even a topic of conversation within the film. We can still undoubtedly call this a piece of queer cinema, but it’s charming to see an example of this genre dig for something deeper than the sexual orientation of its characters.

The sumptuous, painterly cinematography of Dick Pope captures the still majesty of the English countryside with postcard-like framing that highlights the calming qualities of nature. The locations Macqueen has chosen are simply superb and could easily see a tourism boom for the Lake District region when the world gets back to normal. Pope’s beautiful Autumnal colour palette only adds to the intoxicating warmth of the narrative Macqueen has crafted, while Keaton Henson‘s sorrowful piano and string score perfectly compliments Firth and Tucci’s performances.

The screenplay occasionally falters with some hokey dialogue that even actors as talented as Firth and Tucci struggle to elevate. The brief running time robs the film of the chance to explore these characters either pre or post road trip, leaving you somewhat aching for just a touch more. That may be entirely intentional on Macqueen’s part, with the filmmaker seeking to only capture this particular moment of Sam and Tusker’s relationship, but it does leave the film feeling almost unfinished. These are, of course, minor quibbles and perhaps just indicative of how heavily you will fall for these two characters.

The warmth of Supernova is rightly disrupted with the pain of reality that neither Sam nor Tusker can escape. At one point, the latter recalls a quote from philosopher G.K. Chesterton: “We will not starve for lack of wonders, but from lack of wonder.” It highlights the declining mind of a man who lived to wonder; an ability he will soon be brutally robbed of. “You’re not supposed to mourn someone while they’re still alive,” Tusker wisely observes, but that’s precisely what we’re witnessing. And the effect is overwhelming.

This film broke me like no other film this year. And there didn’t seem to be a dry eye in the house within my cinema. Macqueen’s deft restraint creates an intimate, tender experience that’s more concerned with delivering an affecting character study and touching love story than a soul-crushing presentation of how dementia rots the mind. Firth and Tucci are a match made in heaven and Supernova is one of the year’s most emotional experiences.

Distributor: Bleecker Street
Cast: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, Lori Campbell, James Dreyfus, Ian Drysdale, Pippa Haywood
Director: Harry Macqueen
Producers: Emily Morgan, Tristan Goligher
Screenplay: Harry Macqueen
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Production Design: Sarah Finlay
Costume Design: Matthew Price
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Music: Keaton Henson

Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: 29th January 2021 (U.S.)