A film review by Craig J. Koban February 28, 2021


2021, R, 93 mins.

Colin Firth as Sam  /  Stanley Tucci as Tusker  /  James Dreyfus as Tim  /  Pippa Haywood as Lilly  /  Sarah Woodward as Sue  

Written and directed by Harry Macqueen



There's nothing in life more emotionally deflating than knowing that a loved one is slowly dying and there's little you can do to prevent it or numb their pain.  

SUPERNOVA makes for a compelling companion film to this year's FALLING in the sense that both deal with the debilitating effects that dementia has not only on the sufferer, but also on those caring and concerned family members that try to tend to the needs of the afflicted on a daily basis.  

Whereas FALLING concerned the core relationship between a gay man and his toxically homophobic - and dementia ailing - father, SUPERNOVA deals with a sixtysomething gay couple attempting to cope with one of them burdened with it and with no hope for recovery in sight.  Both films do an equally fine job at highlighting how dementia can change a once functioning family dynamic for the worse, but the sick character in SUPERNOVA is far younger than the one affected in FALLING, which adds another layer of tragedy to the proceedings.  In terms of delving into issues of mortality and the nagging uncertainty of death to come, SUPERNOVA packs a sizeable dramatic punch, which is quarterbacked by two of the finest performances of their respective careers by Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth as the aforementioned couple. 

One other area that SUPERNOVA deviates away from FALLING is that it's also a road trip drama.  Tucci and Firth play Tusker and Sam, a couple that have been happily together for decades and, in their own way, are decorated scholars (Tusker is a respected novelist and Sam is a prominent musician).  Tusker, an American, has spent the better part of two decades in England to be with the man that has loved and supported him in his endeavors, but when he's given the horrible diagnosis of early onset dementia both he and Sam are forced to come to grips that their marriage is going to fundamentally change and that their time left together is waning by the day.  With both of their careers put on hold, the couple decides that the best therapy for their souls is to take their camper van for a long trip up north to take in the sights and eventually visit Sam's sister and her family.  With the unavoidable fact of Tusker's eminent passing wearing down hard on them, both men want to spend as much worthwhile time as they can...while they still can.  They are dealt with a few crushing obstacles early on in their journey, like Tusker purposely leaving his meds back home and that his condition is rapidly deteriorating. This shocks the rightfully alarmed Sam, but in Tusker's mind his prescriptions are doing very little outside of slightly delaying the inevitable. 



One of the things that's abundantly apparent very early on in SUPERNOVA is that writer/director Harry Macqueen allows us to immediately be placed within the tight and intimate relationship between these men.  As their trip starts to take shape in the opening sections of the film they partake in frivolous chit-chat, almost in a short-hand kind of way, which allows for audiences to instantly buy into them as a married couple for over twenty years.  There's a stark emotional authenticity to these introductory moments - and many more to come - that's hard to ignore; right from the get-go there's rarely an instance when you doubt the veracity of their union.  SUPERNOVA may be about a marriage in a state of decline, but you feel this couple's long-term history in just a few fleeting moments on screen.  It's pretty rare in modern dramas where the married duo in question come off as genuine as Sam and Tusker do here.  Instead of seeming like the stagy product of screenwriter's intuition, these people act, talk, and interact with one another like real family unit would, even when dealing with the painful realities of one's illness. 

Of course, there would be no film whatsoever if we didn't have deeply committed actors leading the way, and SUPERNOVA is routinely well represented by the likes of Firth and Tucci.  Both performers makes the roles uniquely their own while simultaneously evoking a timeless sense of chemistry that the film requires through and through.  I frequently use the term "lived in" in reviews to capture that believable emotional spectrum that actors bring to the table, and this is most definitely the case with the leads here.  Firth has always lent a sense of straightforward dignity to his past roles, and here he plays into his recognizable strengths, but Tucci here has perhaps the tougher assignment in relaying a man that has given up on any notion of recovery, but still is deeply heartbroken by it and keeps everything internalized the best he can under the circumstances.   No more is this apparent then in the film's most dramatically crushing scene (mid way through) that has Tusker assigned with given a big speech at a family dinner, but when his condition rears its ugly head Sam is forced to pinch hit for him and read it word for word...with some of those words passionately epitomizing Tusker's own devotion for him.  This scene is both pitch perfectly played and unrelentingly sad to endure all the same. 

There's an unmistakable aura of sorrow that permeates through SUPERNOVA.  Both of these men are unwavering in their love for one another, but fully comprehend that one is at the final stages of losing his battle to a devastating illness.  I'm most certain that just about any family that watches this film that also has had to deal with acclimating to a loved one losing their grasp on who they are and how they relate to others and the world around them will easily relate and sympathize.  And that's the dreary underbelly of dementia: Eventually, Tusker's love that he has for Sam and all of their wellspring of experiences will be forgotten by him with a startling finality, which makes the burden of what's to come unbearable for Sam.  SUPERNOVA is at its best when it hones in on both the defenseless sick party and the nurturing spouse that's suffering in his own way while trying to portray a positive minded facade.  As a portrait of acknowledging and accepting one's horrible and looming fate in life, this film definitely strikes a relatable and deeply moving chord, even when the story sometimes meanders around too episodically in search of an ending that's probably not as organically strong as it wants to be. 

But, make no mistake, this is Tucci and Firth's film to collectively command, and they make every beat simmer with such tender validity.  Plus, SUPERNOVA is an unexpectedly sumptuous film on pure visual levels, as cinematographer vet Dick Pope gives us many lasting and eye popping shots of English vistas that it's enough to make one want to take a one way trip there to get lost in its pastoral grandeur (if traveling were allowed right now, of course).  So much of this film looks like lovingly crafted postcard shots that finds endless beauty in what England as to offer, which is assuredly a nice counterpoint to the story's inherent darkness.  SUPERNOVA could have benefited from a longer running time (at just 90 minutes it sometimes comes off as a bit abridged for my tastes), and there's not much of - as mentioned - an overarching plot here beyond its core road trip premise, but it's a deeply affecting drama nevertheless that hits  profoundly in the areas that matters most, and as a terminally ill family member drama it never succumbs to the most manipulative and overused genre troupes. 

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