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‘Supernova reminds us how truly extraordinary love can be’

In this moving review, Rosa Phelps takes us through the emotional and cinematic wonders of Macqueen’s ‘Supernova’

We’re in the back of a camper van, eavesdropping on two bickering middle-aged men. Over the loud hum of the vehicle, they squabble about anything and everything. Sam (Colin Firth) tells Tusker (Stanley Tucci) that if he has forgotten anything, he’ll have to walk home. Tusker responds tartly: ‘Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of me ignoring you.’ Later, they fight about Sam’s driving and Tusker asks, tongue in cheek, ‘How about just exploring the outer regions of fifth gear?’ These are the familiar and affectionate barbs of people who have known and loved each other for a very long time. Eventually, the pair’s eyes meet, and they burst out laughing.
This extended opening sequence encapsulates the intimate and immersive tone of Supernova (2020), director Harry Macqueen’s sophomore film. Its subtle yet powerful script largely consists of mundane moments shared by this couple. At first, the film’s plot seems equally simple. The pair are on a road trip to visit Sam’s sister and her family, and then onto a concert given by Sam, a pianist. The intimate domestic space of their van contrasts with sweepingly idyllic Lake District scenery, beautifully captured by cinematographer Dick Pope.
Then a darker theme emerges. Tusker wanders off in confusion. We learn that he has early-onset dementia and soon, he will ‘forget who is doing the forgetting.’ Suddenly the scenery takes on an elegiac air, its beauty painfully intensified by Tusker’s awareness that he will never consciously see it again. The film becomes a poignant and brilliantly nuanced character study of two men coping very differently with an unbearable inevitability. As Tusker summarises their predicament: ‘You’re not supposed to mourn somebody while they’re still alive.’

Despite its tragic theme, Supernova avoids veering into maudlin sentimentality. This is largely thanks to Stanley Tucci’s brilliant performance as the joyous, gregarious Tusker. His interpretation was inspired by real footage of dementia patients reacting with humour, rather than self-pity, to doctors’ questions. Tucci’s Tusker is pragmatic, but, nevertheless, positive. He wants, above all, to retain control of his life: ‘I’m becoming a passenger and I am not a passenger.’ His dry humour, employed frequently to deflect the gravity of the situation, makes Supernova improbably funny. In the scene which to me best encapsulates Tusker’s personality, he stargazes with his young niece (the film’s title stems from his hobby). Trying to pass his life philosophy on, he tells her: ‘A wise man once said, we will not starve from lack of wonders, but from a lack of wonder.’ The film, as ever, does not wallow in this profundity. Asked what he means, Tusker wittily replies: ‘It means you must never stop asking questions, no matter what your mother says.’

The real star of the show is the natural rapport between Firth and Tucci. Macqueen’s casting of two publicly straight actors as queer protagonists evoked controversy. However, the choice is more than justified by the authentic intimacy of their performance, drawing on 20 years of offscreen friendship. When Tusker poignantly tells Sam: ‘You know, you sit there, doing nothing, propping up the entire world,’ it is utterly believable that we are watching two people whose lives are inextricably intertwined. The actors spent almost all their spare time together during the filming, cooking and eating together like the couple they portray; this genuine closeness shows in almost every moment of the film.