Supernova is an admirably tight drama starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci. It gives us the who and the where immediately – Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci), a long-established couple on holiday in the Lake District in one of those tiny RVs, a Fiat Autotrail, that offer all the creature comforts (cooking, sleeping, sanitation) a crab could want.
There’s a bed (the opening shot of a naked Sam wrapped around Tusker) and there’s banter as the two drive from one location to another, Tusker wheeling out the terrible jokes, Sam groaning in response, the pair of them reacting to the landscape and the songs on the radio as the vehicle snakes along tight roads, while their mongrely spaniel farts in his basket.
The “what” comes a bit later, when Tusker wanders off and an alarmed Sam has to find him. Tusker, it turns out, has been diagnosed with dementia and is liable to suddenly not knowing where he is. This trip together is both a reminder of happier times – they came this way when they first got together all those years ago – and a farewell, to their life together and to Tusker, who is disappearing bit by bit.
There’s barely any fat but a lot of poignancy in writer/director Harry Macqueen’s drama, which has roles so well suited to the actors – the wry humour of Tucci, the solidity of Firth both bubbling up into the characters of Tusker and Sam – that it’s a shock to discover that each man was originally cast in the other’s role. Tucci and Firth had to persuade Macqueen to let them at least try it the other way around. And here we are: it worked.
Apart from a sequence set in the house where Sam grew up – a suprise party with his sister’s family and friends – it’s pretty much a two-hander, with Tucci having the hardest role. However many ways you think “putting on a brave face” can look, Tucci seems to have found a few more. There’s a sweet scene at the surprise party, where Sam’s sister, Lilly (Pippa Haywood), leans over and talks to Tusker about some new experimental treatment she’s just heard about. Tucci responds with a kindly “everywhere I go I get offered off-grid medical advice” expression. No more need be said.
In the dementia stakes Supernova is probably going to be overshadowed in the short term by The Father, with Oscar-talk buzz about Anthony Hopkins’s performance as the old guy losing his grip etc etc. But here the story is about two people being robbed – one of his identity, the other of the love of his life – and the film it’s closer to is Sarah Polley’s 2006 drama Away from Her, which starred a 66-year-old Julie Christie (Tucci was 60 when this was made) as a woman losing her memories while her husband looked on helplessly.
The austerity and beauty of the Lake District are an excellent backdrop, and the way that sun suddenly breaks through a sheet of grey cloud to turn the landscape into a sparkling thing of wonder is caught evocatively by DP Dick Pope.
Macqueen gives us an analogue of the “intimations of immortality” of Wordsworth – the poet most associated with the Lakes – in Tusker’s fascination with astronomy. We’re all made from dead supernovas, he tells Lilly’s daughter as they stare up into the night sky, in a little exchange also extolling the virtues of retaining a sense of wonder.
A tenderly wrought portrait of love – though there is a spoilerish depth charge for those who worry that “not much happens” – with a distinct movement from the superficially jovial to the more elegaic and mournfully sad, the light (but despairing) to the dark (but accepting). And there, having said what needs to be said and nothing more, it ends.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021