An unlikely companion to Natalie Erika James’ horror, Relic, Supernova is the second film from this year’s London Film Festival to deal with the devastating effects of dementia on a family. British director Harry Macqueen takes a sweeter, more sensitive route than James’ Aussie horror – giving us a wonderfully heart-wrenching romance about the power and pain of saying goodbye to the people we love.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci are Sam and Tusker – a 60-something couple driving their camper van through the Lake District on the way to Sam’s next piano recital. We watch them bicker throughout a very British road trip that takes in the grey-green motorways of the Northwest. They get rubbish food at service stations, argue about music choices and shout down the annoying sat-nav that “sounds like Margaret fucking Thatcher”.
Suddenly, Tusker disappears. Found half a mile down the road looking disoriented and upset, it’s clear that things aren’t quite right for the couple. Tusker is struggling to cope with early-onset dementia, while Sam doesn’t know to know how to cope without his partner and best friend. The fear of loss hangs heavily over the film as the couple stop off to visit family and do a bit of night sky watching, the trip slowly pulling both of their anxieties out from under the rug they’ve obviously swept them under.
For Tusker, a former novelist who now just scribbles away in an empty notebook, it’s a terror, an embarrassment and a loss of dignity that he covers with anger and humour. For Sam, it’s the weight of responsibility, and the overwhelming sadness of mourning someone before they’ve even gone. As the passing landscape glows with late-afternoon light it’s clear that what’s coming over the next hill is just as scary for both men – and just as rooted in deep, tender love for each other.
36-year-old Macqueen made his directorial debut in 2015 with the windswept, melancholy indie Hinterland. His latest feels impressively mature for a fledgling filmmaker. More intimate than Sarah Polley’s dementia drama, Away From Her, and closer to the profound ebb and flow of Michael Haneke’s award-winning Amour, Supernova is committed to showing Tusker and Sam as real people, but unafraid to grab the heartstrings when it needs to.
Yes, Supernova is relentlessly upsetting, but it never feels like a tough watch thanks to Firth and Tucci. Both give career-best performances – Firth’s gently cracking calm is only slightly overshadowed by Tucci’s buttoned-up resolve, yet it’s hard not to enjoy spending time with either of them. Hung with sadness but alive with the things that make life worth living, Supernova is the kind of rich and powerful love story that rarely gets told. Seek it out, but take some tissues with you.
- Director: Harry Macqueen
- Starring: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, James Dreyfus
- Released: October 18, 2020 (BFI London Film Festival), June 25, 2021 (in UK cinemas)