Synopsis: Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) have been a couple for over 20 years. They have a loving relationship and a blissful life together, but that happiness is shattered following Tusker’s diagnosis of dementia. We join them as they travel across England in their old camper-van, re-visiting special places and spending time with their family and friends. However, as their trip progresses, both men are forced to face the severity of their situation and what their future holds.
Supernova (MacQueen, 2020) is, without doubt, one of the best films being screened at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. Scratch that – it’s easily one of 2020’s best films. The film is written and directed by Harry MacQueen, who was behind the British indie darling, Hinterland (MacQueen, 2014). However, with his confident second feature we’re almost certainly witnessing MacQueen’s ascension as both writer and director.
MacQueen’s script is as nuanced as the performances that its two leads deliver. From the outset, you might query why two stalwarts of their generation would sign up to work with a relatively unproven writer and director, but MacQueen’s script clearly spoke volumes. As a relatively new director, MacQueen deserves praise for understanding how much freedom and direction to give both Firth and Tucci. If MacQueen had over directed his leads, we could have ended up with a far less rewarding film.
Fighting the reality
MacQueen obviously deserves credit for his vital role, but it shouldn’t be understated just how fantastic both Firth and Tucci are in Supernova. Tucci, in particular, deserves credit for not simply ‘playing the disease’, which can often be the case with more showy, award-bating films. Instead, Tucci delivers the performance of a man who understands what the disease is slowly doing to him and fighting the reality of losing his sense of self. This is painfully, but beautifully, realised in one scene where Tusker is chatting with Sam’s sister, Lilly, and he says, he’s not the guy that Sam fell in love with, “I just look like him.”
I haven’t loved a Tucci performance this much since he portrayed Emma Stone’s easy-going father in, Easy-A (Gluck, 2010). Two very different performances, but both equally memorable and moving.
Firth’s performance paints Sam as a man that is suppressing the painful reality of his situation. Sam does that to enable himself to be able to carry on, to be able to hold everything together and provide Tusker with the care he needs. Only occasionally is Sam unable to hold back his emotions, but as Tusker’s illness worsens, it’s obvious that the burden is becoming far heavier. However challenging it might have been for Firth to portray that burden, he does so sensitively and confidently.
The reason the film works so well is because of these two exceptional performances working in unison. Sam and Tusker’s love often goes unspoken, but their chemistry is palpable. Firth and Tucci’s scenes together are amusing, heartwarming but also devastatingly moving. This film simply wouldn’t work without these actors bringing their absolute best, which is precisely what they deliver in Supernova. To call this road movie a tear-jerker simply doesn’t do it justice. The reason you feel so much in the film’s latter half is because of the actors’ naturalistic and tangible depiction of love (in the face of adversity).
If I were to make one criticism, it would be that Supernova feels somewhat akin to Julianne Moores’ Still Alice (Glatzer & Westmoreland, 2014). What I mean by that is both films “suffer” from being dangerously middle-class. My issue lies in that both portrayals are in arguably ‘ideal’ circumstances. Now, to clarify that, there’s never an ideal time to have Dementia or Alzheimer’s, but both characters are so financially secure that the one thing that is never presented as an issue, is money. Whilst I don’t feel that this overly detracts from either Supernova or Still Alice, I think it should be obvious that for people of less wealthy means, the journey could be far more arduous. To put it more succinctly, both Supernova and Still Alice deal with illness from an obviously privileged position.
Just one more moment
That one, minor criticism aside, as the film reaches its climax and the reality of Tusker’s situation becomes painfully clear, you’ll find yourself wishing that you too could share just one more moment, just one more scene with these wonderfully realised characters. What better endorsement can I give Supernova? It is a tearful, affecting joy to behold and both performances are deserving of awards.
Supernova is being screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival from the 11 to 18 of October 2020. It will be available to watch via the BFI Player and in selected cinemas across the UK. Supernova is due for general release on the 27 November.