Writer and Director: Harry Macqueen
One way to achieve intimacy on screen is to cast actors who have known each other a long time, director Harry Macqueen explains, because it gives them a solid character foundation to build on. Friends for 20-years, the intimacy between Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth is essential to the understated and fragile tenderness at the heart of Supernova, one of a handful of films warranted an in-person screening at this year’s London Film Festival.
Novelist Tusker is in the early stages of dementia and while still functioning normally, he has noticed slight changes to memory and thought processes, so he decides to take pianist partner Sam on a road trip around the English countryside in their camper van culminating in Sam’s latest concert. Meeting friends along the way, the couple consider what the next stage of their lives has in store and the secrets both have been hiding.
Macqueen’s film is a rare example of the texture and understanding in long-term relationships which, regardless of the sexuality of the characters, presents a rounded impression of a connection that brings fulfilment and frustration. By placing Tusker and Sam at close quarters for a prolonged period, the feelings and fears they have buried finally come to the fore but not in the histrionic and combative way that drama so often demands, but gently, reasonably and poignantly as the severity of what they are facing dawns on them both.
Even the discussion and experience of dementia is managed in the most low-key fashion, acknowledged, but in focusing on the first signs of behavioural change Macqueen’s film retains a quiet gravity, a respectful dignity as two rational and intelligent companions contemplate what this means for the life they have built together, some of which they must do alone.
It is the strength of this relationship and its nuances that makes Supernova both heart-warming and moving, particularly as Sam silently struggles to voice his fears. So much is wordlessly communicated to the audience as Sam in particular moves towards acceptance and Macqueen’s screenplay is sparing in its dialogue and exposition, trusting the actors to manifest the connection for the audience.
Macqueen has staged the scenario beautifully, filming this time last year, and there is a secondary theme about the smallness of people in relation to the landscape and indeed to the universe explored in Tusker’s obsession with astronomy. The little van is seen repeatedly driving through expansive and stunning grey-brown autumnal hills as the countryside becomes a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and death.
Unusually for this type of film, there is no showy star performance in which a lead actor replicates a medical condition and Supernova is all the stronger for it. Instead Tucci and Firth are the epitome of contained magnificence, both superb in the presentation of subtext revealing acres of feeling that both struggle to keep below the surface. Tucci has such poise, giving Tusker a calm, accepting manner that is almost heroically still, while Firth’s more emotional Sam mutely registers his devastation, wanting to bury his head in the sand and hoping he has the courage for what is to come.
The only time the film appears to miss a beat is at the final confrontation where a melodramatic decision, though softly played out, never quite grasps the consequences or impact it will have, and what has been an even-handed relationship so far leans too quickly to one side. Nonetheless, Supernova is a film full of restraint and that makes its exploration of long-term love all the more powerful.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October