An ageing gay couple travel across England in their old RV to visit places and people from their past, after one of them was diagnosed with dementia.
Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker’s (Stanley Tucci) 20 years together is disrupted by the latter’s diagnosis of early onset dementia. So the pair embarks on a camper van road trip across England, hoping to create some final memories. 36-year-old former actor Harry Macqueen made his directorial debut with the melancholic indie Hinterland (2015), and Supernova is a mature sophomore feature.
Tusker’s dementia is treated like a black cloud hanging over this middle-aged couple, rather than a prime character trait. They sit in the front seats moaning, talking, and discussing the merits of sat nav systems. It starts as another safe, grey-pound tale of an ageing couple, but soon becomes a bitter narrative of two lovers forced to let go of each other. Macqueen’s subtle writing slowly hints at the extent of Tusker’s illness, as the men’s turmoil is masked behind Sam’s Britishness and Tusker’s dry sense of humour. Audiences not paying full attention may even not notice the first few hints of Tusker’s mental deterioration.
Sam encourages Tasker to keep audio diaries to track his illness. Tusker announces “welcome to the Dementia Hour on BBC Four.” It’s through these tapes we get to learn more about their struggles. Dementia is a unique illness, one that’s only now beginning to be investigated in films like Blackbird (2019) and The Leisure Seeker (2017). It’s the type of illness where the mourner and the mourned can share their grief, as both have to suffer the death of the person they knew before the final physical passing.
Tusker’s a celebrated novelist who hasn’t put a pen to paper in months. In many ways, he’s the only person to have made peace with his fate. This trip allows him to tie up any loose ends. On the other hand, classical pianist Sam has put aside his career aside to care for his partner, believing that love will get them through the worst. Supernova, ultimately, deals less with Tusker’s illness and more with Sam’s inability to accept the reality he’ll soon be alone. There’s a tender frankness between the two that’s truly beautiful. At times it’s so intimate you may feel like you’re intruding on a real moment.
Their same-sex relationship is never a part of the plot, either, but neither is it overshadowed. The sex scene, the cuddling in bed, and the history these two share normalises same-sex relationships in a way Hollywood’s often scared to depict.
In the hands of a more melodramatic writer, Supernova could have been heavy-handed and stagey. MacQueen perfectly pitches the soul-crushing nature of death with the joy of ever having been in love. In the hands of the wrong actors, Supernova might have felt boring with its play-like subtleness, but Firth and Tucci are a perfect match. Firth, somewhat channelling his Academy Award-nominated role in A Single Man (2009), anchors his performance with a rage and despair; while Tucci is perfectly reserved yet in good humour, already accepting of his fate.
Supernova is autumn encapsulated in film. The cast all wear cosy knitwear in different shades of beige, like an advert for Marks & Spencer. As the couple travel up north towards the Lake District, the rolling landscapes turn from green to ochre. Mike Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope finds as much beauty in the dimly lit rooms and cosy cottages as he does in the wondrous British landscape. The autumnal atmosphere of this film only adds to the emotion.
Supernova, through all its middle-class beigeness, is never afraid to be upsetting and real. But it never becomes a tough watch thanks to Tucci and Firth’s inherent charms. They feel like a real couple with proper history together, complete with, in-jokes. Tucker had something to live for, and Supernova celebrates the things worth living for alongside the sadness of loss. Perhaps there’s one scene too many, which softens the crushing finale, but it’s rare to see companionship and love celebrated like this.
UK | 2020 | 93 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Harry Macqueen.
starring: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, James Dreyfus, Pippa Haywood & Sarah Woodward.