BFI LFF 2020: Supernova (2020)

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci are superb in Harry MCQueen’s Supernova, this intimate portrayal of a couple facing a challenging future with one of them suffering from early onset dementia.

Brilliant burnout

by Chris Drew

Supernova

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Plot-wise Supernova is a simple film. Long-term partners pianist Sam (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech) and author Tusker (Stanley Tucci, The Devil Wears Prada) are on holiday in their motorhome with their dog Ruby.

As they revisit old memories and visit family, including Sam’s sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood, Bodyguard) and her family, we get to know the couple, their connection and life together. But constantly looming over their trip is the shadow of Tusker’s gradually declining health.

We are often spared seeing Tusker’s dementia affecting him too obviously but see glimpses of how difficult life is becoming for him; from being able to concentrate, struggling to put clothes on to getting confused and walking off without his phone.

Scenes where the couple share their feelings, sometimes via audio tapes they record together, on Tusker’s condition and their fears for the future form the emotional core of the film.

At a gathering of friends and family the love and warmth felt for the Anglo-American couple is heartwarming. The scene is highlighted by a beautiful speech Tusker has written about Sam but is unable to read it, leaving Sam to read it for him.

The film is wrapped in a muted autumnal palette, entirely set in beautiful British countryside with the fields, forests and waters of the Lake District providing a glorious backdrop.

At one stage as Sam and Tusker drive through a valley the camera moves to the point of view from the motorhome – all they see is spectacular scenery and it’s just the two of them driving forward into it, unsure if they are going the right way but continuing on their journey together.

For the vast majority of the film Sam and Tusker are the only characters on screen and so the film relies heavily on their chemistry and the power of the performances and both Firth and Tucci deliver in spades, easily convincing as a loving couple who have been together for twenty years.

Tucci’s portrayal of someone faced by his mortality feels realistic but pleasingly Tusker maintains a witty sense of humor; announcing at point that the SAT-NAV sounds like Margaret Thatcher and embarrassing Sam at a café by telling the waitress she should not be afraid to ask if she wants Sam’s autograph

It is Firth who has perhaps the more emotional role as he faces life without his partner and at various points quietly discovers when Tusker has tried to protect him from how afflicted he has become. There are several moments where the camera lingers on Firth’s face and the heartbreak he emotes is deeply moving.

Writer/Director Harry Macqueen’s second feature shares DNA with Ordinary Love (2019), 45 Years (2015) (from the same producing team) and Still Alice (2014) in its portrayal of illness and an ordinary couple facing adversity together. Like those films it is relatable, moving and memorable.

Supernova screens in the BFI London Film Festival 2020 on 11, 12 and 14 October 2020 and in UK cinemas thereafter.

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