Supernova is an elegant, elegiac story of two soulmates facing the cruelty of dementia, with director Harry Macqueen crafting a mature, affecting story of galactic proportions.
Every star in the night sky looks the same to me—glinting uniformly in the inky darkness, unthreatening in their anonymity. Would I find the night sky less beautiful if I was told that each tiny dot in the sky once had a face and a name? Would it matter if I remained blissfully ignorant of a thousand memories long-faded from my brain—is it disquieting to not know what is ‘out there’? A smattering of stars may be beautiful to some and terrifying to others, a reminder of our smallness in a world we cannot control. Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a writer living with his partner Sam (Colin Firth), orbits this dilemma in Supernova, writer-director Harry Macqueen’s superb sophomore feature.
We meet Sam and Tusker as the couple are setting off on an RV road trip to the Lake District. But despite the Edenic setting, it’s immediately clear that still waters run deep: the mournful tone soon gives way to reveal that Tusker’s health is rapidly deteriorating due to early-onset dementia. Sam does his best to look after Tusker, but his subtle vulnerability naturally unravels, albeit in a genteel, Firth-ian fashion. Between private cries, knee squeezes and protective spooning in bed, he must come to terms with the fact that Tusker is not willing to fade away: not willing to wait for faces to turn into dots in the night sky.
Tusker and Sam’s love is one articulated through tactility. There’s a wordless pleasure to be gleaned from textures and sensory familiarity: wool, skin, dog fur, soft hands. At one point Sam gently strokes the hair on Tusker’s arm, and he says lazily, happily: “I like it when you do that. It’s nice.” The rings in a tree trunk give you an idea of its age, a physicality that is easy to read: similarly, the lines in Tusker and Sam’s face carve meaning into their exchanges, holding each other’s gnarled hands as a way to physically remind of their presence and love, the lived-in nature of their affection for one another and their eidolon of memories.
Their comfort and fond familiarity breathe warmth into the chilly autumn air; when Sam turns on the radio, Donovan warbles over the speakers: “In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty / I want to be in the warm hold of your loving mind / To feel you all around me / And to take your hand […] When rain has hung the leaves with tears / I want you near to kill my fears / To help me to leave all my blues behind.”
But their love for each other is spoken, too: in one scene, Tusker gazes at his love in quiet awe before saying: “you just sit there, doing nothing, propping up the entire world.” I’ve experienced first-hand how soul-destroying dementia is on a family, how painful it is to not be recognised by a loved one. Such is the success of Macqueen’s storytelling and Tucci and Firth’s performances, to make the audience explicitly aware that this simply cannot be an option for Sam and Tusker.
What is most devastating about Supernova is the glimpses we’re given of Tusker’s steadfast spirit that this cruel disease has slowly eroded. Sparks of wit fly, from his hatred of the sat-nav (“she sounds like Margaret fucking Thatcher! First she gives us Section 28, then she tells us where to go on holiday”), to attempts to make light of his predicament (“welcome to dementia hour on BBC Radio 4”). His handwriting fades into illegible scrawls as the pages go on in his notebook, like a petering heart monitor.
Tucci and Firth soar into the stratosphere in their respective roles, enlivening what could have potentially been trite characters to reveal people that are multi-layered, yet prone to the simplicity of human emotion. It’s refreshing to watch a film starring two gay characters where the storyline has nothing to do with their sexuality. But despite this, there’s an unmistakable link the mind makes to the AIDS crisis when we watch Sam care for the frail Tusker: especially when taking their age, Tusker’s reference to Section 28 and what they would have lived through into consideration. Sam’s care of Tusker can only be palliative though; a kintsugi for the gaps in his memory. The weight of history makes the cruel simplicity of their problem all the more heartbreaking in the face of their love for one another.
Supernova doesn’t reinvent the wheel, nor does it doesn’t need to. Macqueen crafts an exquisite two-hander of telescopic depth; an asteroid of a film that hits you out of nowhere with a crushing, emotional blow. A supernova occurs when an object collapses into a black hole and is completely destroyed. Arguably, watching this film has a similar effect.
Supernova is released in the United Kingdom on 27 November 2020.
Words by Steph Green
Other reviews from the London Film Festival can be found here.
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