The most delicate moments of Supernova, the sublime sophomore feature from British director Harry Macqueen, don’t actually happen on screen; they’re seldom, even, explicitly textual. They come in the form of recounted memories, whispered conversations between partners Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), hiding from the cold under a thick, moody-blue duvet in the back of their camper van: “Where were you in the ‘70s?” asks Sam at one point, a question which rings in the air with decades-long love, what they’ve lived through implicit to those with a passing knowledge of history, their passion still burning like the most incandescent star in the night sky.
Sam and Tusker are a couple in their mid-to-late fifties, or maybe early sixties, embarking on a road trip through the British countryside (gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Nick Pope, with shots of woodlands and lakes that could, perhaps should, be framed and mounted). Sam is a classical pianist, himself apparently forgotten, for the most part, after a substantial career, and Tusker is a famous American novelist. He is also in the early stages of dementia. It’s implied that the two have been together for many decades, first meeting in their twenties as Britain was on the cusp of Thatcherism, for whom they share in irreverence, naturally: Quipping that their annoying sat-nav sounds like her, Tusker says “first it’s Section 28, now she’s telling us where to go on our holiday!”
Supernova is all about memory, both in the most explicit terms – Tusker’s battle with dementia – and the implied. What we put together of the pair’s relationship, what they’ve experienced together, is formed of a patchwork of artefacts and reminiscence; the holidays they recount to Japan, France and Wales, their shared love of stargazing, their doting dog, their piles and piles of woolies and cable knits. It’s a solid foundation for the week-or-so we share in their company and vital all the same. Matthew Price’s costume design especially warrants merit, having curated just the array of autumnal jumpers and wooly hats that you’d expect from a stylish couple of aging, petit bourgeois queens.
The phantom of the AIDS crisis, too, is unmistakable, if never explicitly spoken, because this is a film about monogamous gay men approaching seniority, something unthinkable to the Sam and Tusker of the past, the terrified boys who, no doubt, watched their friends die en masse and came through it all, eventually, only to face another pathological crisis. It is through this lens that the film is most resonant, compounding the wider thesis of phantom remembrance; death, ultimately, is a queer bedfellow, and this is a moving reconciliation.
The writing is hokey at points, a tad expository and yes, occasionally stagey, but it seldom matters. The performances of both Firth and Tucci are career-best turns, elevating a sometimes stunted script with their emotional versatility. Firth’s Sam is a portrait of a man trying to keep everything together at the cost of, well, everything; he is a man fighting not only for the life of his life partner but also for his own, as these, forty years down the line, are nothing less than symbiotic. Most resonant are his sorrowful eyes, captured, in one pivotal scene, in an achingly long close-up by Pope; they hang heavy with days, months, and years of exhaustion, guilt, and abjection. He cannot do what he must do: Let go.
About two-thirds of the way through Supernova, a surprise dinner is thrown by Sam’s family, who they visit part-way through their drive. Tusker, warmly teaching one of the kids how to stargaze, recalls a pertinent quote from writer-philosopher G.K. Chesterton: “The world will not starve from lack of wonders, but from lack of wonder.” This serves to outline one of Supernova’s great tragedies: The decline of a wondrous man, mourned in real-time by those who revere him, his light dimming before the eyes of all with no semblance of self-control. In many ways, it’s a terror akin to Johnny Got His Gun, only here Tusker is not trapped in his mind, but betrayed by its corruption. It is heartbreaking, but as with Sam, we’re willed on to let go; in an almost perverse fashion, to forget.
This review is from the 64th BFI London Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release Supernova in the US at a later date.