Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play a middle-aged couple facing an existential crisis in Supernova, a poignant portrait of love in autumn from young British writer-director Harry Macqueen. Firth and the London-based Tucci have been friends for years, notching up several shared screen credits already. Their easy chemistry is a strong selling point for Macqueen’s second feature, which world premieres at the San Sebastian Film Festival this week.
More worthy effort than heartbreaking triumph, it should gain further festival traction (with London up next in October) and modest theatrical interest based on its two headline stars, its universal themes and its admirably understated depiction of same-sex romance.
An award-winning actor turned filmmaker whose list of screen credits includes Richard Linklater’s Orson Welles and Me (2008) and BBC television’s long-running London-set soap EastEnders, Macqueen made his directing debut in 2014 with the self-starring indie road movie Hinterland.
His sophomore project is richer and darker in tone, a tender love story inspired by the personal experience of seeing friends and colleagues struggling with the devastating effects of dementia at relatively young ages. Essentially a talk-heavy two-hander, Supernova deals with bleak subject matter in a fairly staid format, but its clunky traditionalism is offset by a poetic script, gorgeous landscapes and two fine lead performances.
At first, Supernova almost plays like a gay reboot of the Steve Coogan-Rob Brydon comedy travelogue series The Trip, with Tucci and Firth playing a 60-ish couple bickering and bantering their way around England’s picturesque Lake District region in a small motorhome. These shared in-joke scenes are deftly observed, effective short-hand signifiers for how long-term lovers affectionately tease and quietly affirm each other. But there are ominous undertones evident early on, with semi-retired concert pianist Sam (Firth) dropping concerned hints about his novelist partner Tusker (Tucci) becoming fatigued, followed by a scary episode at a roadside diner.
Macqueen does not keep viewers in suspense for long. Tusker is living with early-onset dementia, his mental faculties in gradual retreat. As an author and amateur astronomer, his receding memory and failing mind are a cruel double blow. He and Sam are on a kind of unspoken farewell tour across northern England, revisiting their early romantic haunts, old friends and family members as they travel.
The trip is timed to culminate in Sam’s reluctant return to the concert hall with a low-key comeback show after years away from the piano. Meanwhile, Tusker is quietly weighing up stark choices about his future. “You’re not supposed to mourn somebody when they are still alive,” he protests to Sam.
Both Firth and Tucci have likened Supernova to a stage play, and it undoubtedly feels that way in places, but more like a starchy old chamber drama from the buttoned-up post-war period than anything emotionally raw or formally adventurous from more recent decades.
Given its painful subject matter, this heartfelt slow-motion tragedy makes for an oddly flat viewing experience, constrained by a British sense of polite restraint, squeamishly evasive about sex and death. Much like its muted minor-key score, the dramatic tone opts for too much piano and not enough forte, with too few emotional crescendos.
In its favor, Supernova does offer the stunning mountain scenery of the Lake District, its misty valleys and watery panoramas transformed into painterly tableaux by Oscar-nominated cinematographer and Mike Leigh regular Dick Pope.
Macqueen also coaxes two finely calibrated performances from his leads, with Tucci in particularly nimble form, eloquently invoking a deep emotional hinterland with a single glance or subtle shift in body language. It is also refreshing, even in 2020, to see a drama about a gay couple that does not make sexuality a key theme or problematic plot point.
Plenty to admire here, if only this tasteful tearjerker lived up to its title with a few more explosive fireworks instead of settling for timid twinkles, ending not with a bang but a whimper.
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Quiddity Films, The Bureau, BBC Films
Cast: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, Lori Campbell, James Dreyfus, Ian Drysdale, Pippa Haywood
Director, screenwriter: Harry Macqueen
Producers: Emily Morgan, Tristan Goligher
Cinematographer: Dick Pope
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Music: Keaton Henson
Sales company: The Bureau