London Film Festival Review – Supernova

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci dazzle in devastating tearjerker

How do you mourn someone who is still alive? That’s the central dilemma facing Sam (Colin Firth) in the gently devastating Supernova from writer/director Harry MacQueen (Hinterland).  Sam is a semi-retired pianist whose partner of several decades Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is suffering from early-onset dementia. The duo decides to take a road trip in their ramshackle campervan (along with their cute dog) to see Sam’s family on the way to a comeback performance of sorts for Sam.  While neither of them is prepared to admit it this road trip is a farewell tour – the first line in the movie, uttered by Sam, is “We can’t go back” and never a truer word. Both know that this is the last trip they will take while Tusker is still well enough to enjoy it and the men have very different views as to how their journey will end.

Supernova is an achingly beautiful tear-jerker that will turn you into a helpless sobbing mess- I went through half a box of tissues watching this. The tone is elegiac and melancholy from the beginning but MacQueen keeps proceedings light, leavening the darkness with many a sardonic quip from Firth or Tucci. Movies about dementia are either unbearable to watch or sugary sweet cosy nonsense but Supernova gets the tone just right – it will wrench your heart in two without being cloying.

The movie is beautiful to look at but MacQueen prevents it from being a complete tourist ad for the Lake District by keeping it real such as a scene where the duo bed down for the night in their camper van in a particularly glamorous location – the car park of Spa supermarket. 

Firth and Tucci are both utterly brilliant. They have a cosy “been with each other since the dawn of time” bickering chemistry which is hard to conjure. One hilarious scene shows them struggling to share a single bed in Sam’s family home much to Tusker’s delight.  Tucci can do sardonic and funny standing on his head but he has to be nakedly vulnerable here and it’s devastating to watch. The character also radiates kindness – one scene that really stood out for me is Tusker listening to Sam’s sister awkwardly telling him about all these wonderful drug trials she’s heard about. He knows it’s far too late for him but accepts the well-intentioned words with such grace. Tusker is also brimming with his love for Sam – so much so he can barely tear his eyes away from him in some scenes. “Look at you, sitting there doing nothing and propping up the whole world”.

In movies like this, the partner of the poor soul with dementia generally gets short shrift when it comes to acting plaudits but that won’t be the case with Colin Firth who easily puts in the performance of his career here. Sam loves Tusker so much that he is convinced that his love is enough to weather any storm that comes their way. He’s prepared to put his life entirely on hold for Tusker because he can’t bear the thought of being without him. Tusker, being a realist, has other plans. From the moment Sam uses the old “cutting onions” trick to hide his tears Firth rips your heart out and smashes it to smithereens. The performance is all the more impressive for being so understated. There’s no huge grandstanding, tears and snot moment here – just a series of delicate smaller moments that are no less devastating to watch – a silent reunion after Tusker wanders off, his reaction to a dinner party speech, the moment he gets to finally read Tusker’s latest book… Just remembering these moments long after watching the film made me want to weep such is their power.

I feel at this stage of the review it would be remiss not to note that Supernova features two very heterosexual actors playing a gay couple. This is the second film (along with Ammonite which is due to close LFF) which features straight actors getting serious awards buzz for playing queer characters. Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci are both wonderful in the roles and their chemistry is lovely but there is an odd chasteness to proceedings. I don’t for a second think sex scenes would have been appropriate for this film but you do wonder if gay actors would have bought a lived experience to these roles that would have offset the movie’s overly safe approach to the physical side of Sam and Tusker’s relationship. 

Everyone should be able to play anybody but that’s only true if all actors are on a level playing field and of course, they’re not. 

Despite my reservations about that aspect of the film Supernova is still a deeply affecting movie featuring two dazzling performances that you should absolutely watch when it comes out later this year.

5/5 Stars