A film that is stirring and heartfelt in every sense of the world, Supernova is beautiful piece of the lush, if predictable, British cinema we have come to expect.
When long time partners Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) begin their travels around England visiting friends and family, this quiet trip away becomes something more as the two deal with Tusker’s diagnosis of early onset dementia. Pianist Sam is due to perform at a concert — his first in a long time — towards the end of the trip and it marks the first time they have been able to travel since Tusker was diagnosed two years earlier.
Tusker’s illness lurks in every interaction, colouring every conversation whether wanted or not. As the couple travel to a quiet spot beside a gorgeously tranquil lake where they used to visit, the unacknowledged fact is that this may be the last time they come here together. And while they are bickering — about the maps, about Tusker’s hatred of the voice of the Satnav which sounds too much like “Margaret fucking Thatcher” — this undercurrent of worry that Sam carries throughout on his shoulders is ever present. They are not the people they were before, they never will be, and this journey only had one destination that is certain.
Firth and Tucci’s performances as a literal ‘old couple’ are perfect. They bounce off each other with verve, the love they have for each other is not showy or loud but resonates in the quiet moments: the unconscious mirroring of body language, hands clasped together in the middle of the night. It is this tenderness that draws us in, the moments where emotion comes to the surface become even more heart-wrenching. A wobble in Sam’s voice as he reads a speech that Tusker has prepared, a blank look of terror when he realises Tusker has wandered off highlights the fear of the future that he has in front of him. The tears come easily as we watch these two men, so deeply in love, facing the fact that this will not last forever.
That’s not to say Supernova is perfect: Harry Macqueen’s script can verge easily into sentimental cliches about stardusts, or “being sad… just means it was great while it was here”, or the dreaded and much ridiculed “sis” moniker. That being said, there is no doubt that this will sweep the awards season (particularly the BAFTAs) but that might just be the problem.
With two bankable stars and backing from both the BFI and BBC films, Supernova has the opportunity to do something interesting and different, but instead falls into the easy trap of exploring the upper echolons of British society. These people own large, gated houses in the English countryside, with Agas and fancy campervans and at some point it is easy to lose yourself in the romanticism of this lifestyle. There are no doctor’s appointments or waiting in hospitals — but there doesn’t have to be. Another version of the story would see the characters have to deal with jobs that don’t allow for long periods off work, or negotiating sick pay benefits while trying to prove to the DWP that they really cannot work because they are dying.
Is it easier to focus on the (more than comfortable) upper-middle classes that instead interrogate the class issues that are seeped into the fabric of British society? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean British film shouldn’t try.
Supernova screened as part of the virtual edition of BFI London Film Festival 2020. It will be released by Studio Canal UK on November 27th
by Rose Dymock