Directed by: #HarryMacqueen
Written by: #HarryMacqueen
If you are going into Harry Macqueen’s ‘dementia drama’ Supernova expecting it to be a gruelling experience then you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find. What Macqueen has done here is near-extraordinary in crafting a film that is devastatingly sad, yet never bleak. The sense of oppressive hopelessness that can so easily engulf a film like this is replaced instead with a delicacy, a softness. This is in many ways a very light, warm film, but utterly heartbreaking nevertheless. It is a comforting hug that you never want to end.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play Sam and Tusker, a couple who have been together for an unspecified ‘long time’, and thus have fallen into familiar, loving bickering. Both creative types, Sam a pianist and Tusker a novelist, they each resemble different models of the middle-aged artist. Sam is the surlier of the two, out of love with his field and hurtling towards a premature retirement. Softly spoken yet irascible, this is a scruffier Colin Firth than you’re used to.
Tusker, meanwhile, is the bon vivant of the pair. Funny and mischievous, you get the sense it is he who has been welcoming guests and giving toasts for the two decades or so that they have been together. Tucci is a perfect fit for the role of the raconteur, with his distinctive timbre that could make the yellow pages captivating. Together, they mesh well, feeling quietly authentic as a couple long settled into each other’s rhythms.
Tusker’s light is a bright one, but as we meet him it is being dimmed increasingly rapidly by young-onset dementia. Reality for him, Sam, and their life together is changing every day and becoming increasingly difficult for all involved. Writer-director Macqueen explores this dynamic and the myriad issues surrounding Tusker’s condition by way of a road trip the pair take through the English countryside. With few visual flourishes but great use of its locations, the film frequently proves gorgeous to look at as the couple embark on their journey.
It may seem an odd thing to say, but as Supernova progresses it becomes clearer that it is not concerned with dementia so much, as the effect that dementia has on the love between two people. This is very much a two-hander, but if anything we get more time with Sam than Tusker, and the film takes place on his home turf. Tusker’s story is a devastatingly sad one, slowly becoming unrecognisable to himself, but so is Sam’s.
He does not know what to do, what is best for Tusker, what is the kindest course of action, and he feels that so much of the pressure is on him. Tusker knows that, of course, and does his best to avoid being a burden. Where the film hits its dramatic peak is in the conflict between the two men. It is a conflict born solely out of love and selflessness. The script does a great job of teasing out the intricacies of a relationship built on dependence, and has great sympathy for both parties. One of the film’s most affecting moments is Sam all alone, clear-eyed and calm, confronting the enormity of his situation.
Despite this enormity, Supernova does not take a fatalistic, overblown approach to Tusker’s illness. We spend far more time with him behaving ‘normally’ than we do watching him forgetting things. Macqueen is smart enough to know that we only need a few key glimpses of Tusker stumbling over his words or looking lost to understand his pain. What needs properly investing in is who Tusker was and who he is desperately trying to still be. Supernova makes that investment and is a stronger film for it.
We fall into the specific rhythms of Sam and Tusker’s relationship, with great humour peppered in throughout. There is a lovely scene in which Sam and Tusker comically attempt to sleep in Sam’s childhood single bed. This is a case in point of how the film makes sure we understand their dynamic and therefore how the dementia is affecting it. Macqueen focusses his attentions on Sam and Tusker’s love more than their pain. The pain comes from witnessing the love, fearing it will end.
Everything about Supernova is delicate, simple and tender. The performances are natural and understated but packed with such emotion that you could watch them all day. Macqueen gives the actors time to do this, making his his filmmaking style seem effortless. It is as if he is not making a film but simply observing life with his camera; to achieve that effect requires great skill from Macqueen, Tucci and Firth. What they have crafted together here is a film that doesn’t reach for a well-crafted emotional crescendo, but that earns its tears with a gentle, loving approach. Supernova is capable of moving you to tears at almost any moment.