A night sky slowly fills up with stars until there’s barely room for any more. One shines especially bright, brilliantly even, but then fades and disappears. It’s a supernova and, in a more earthly context, it sums up Harry Macqueen’s sophomore feature as writer and director.
Pianist Sam (Colin Firth) and writer Tusker (Stanley Tucci) have been together for 20 years. After Tusker’s dementia diagnosis, the two spend as much time together as possible and take a holiday in the countryside in their old RV, visiting friends and family and renting a cottage for some peace and quiet. It’s a chance to re-visit places from their past, reminisce with the people closest to them and face what the future may bring.
Supernova isn’t the first time that dementia has been in the cinematic spotlight. The disease that, until this year, was probably the one most in the forefront of the public mind was at the centre of 2014’s Still Alice, while Relic (also screened at this year’s LFF and in cinemas from 30 October) uses it as the basis for a disturbing horror story. Macqueen’s film probably has more in common with Julianne Moore’s Oscar winner, in that the characters aren’t exactly short of a bob or two, a fact that might alienate some members of the audience. We’re clearly going to have to wait for a film in a less privileged setting but the essential emotions, the dilemma and the pain for everybody concerned are still the same, regardless of economic circumstances.
Essentially a two hander, with just one sequence that involves more characters, the film stands or falls on its two leading men. It unquestionably stands – and stands tall. In fact, it’s astonishing that nobody has cast Firth and Tucci together before, such is their on-screen appeal and chemistry, as well as the quality of their performances. The contrast in their appearances – the tall, chunky, square jawed Firth against the smaller, lean and impish Tucci – extends to their personalities in the film. Sam is the more introverted and contemplative while Tusker is full of fun and extrovert energy – the star that burns brightly and wants to be remembered as he was, not as he’s going to be. It’s a cruel irony that a man who lives through writing faces a future where he’ll be robbed of his ability to use words and we’re looking over Sam’s shoulder when he has a heart stopping vision of what’s to come. Thumbing through his partner’s notebook, it’s startling how his handwriting has declined from a strong, vigorous hand to nothing more than an illegible scrawl. And then blank pages.
Profoundly moving and beautifully shot, from the stunning landscapes of the Lake District to the close ups of both Firth and Tucci which speak volumes – watch the way memories flicker across Firth’s eyes in the final sequence – this is a film where tears unashamedly gulp just beneath the surface. It’s one that celebrates the joy and the pain that go hand in hand with love, that confronts the almost impossible decisions faced by its characters and yet still allows the light of humour and mischievous wit to shine through, albeit temporarily. We want to spend more time with Sam and Tusker, but we know it can’t be, that it would be an intrusion. Because they need to be together, and time is all they have left.
Drama | Cert: tbc | StudioCanal | London Film Festival, 11, 12 and 14 October 2020. In cinemas 27 November 2020 | Dir. Harry Macqueen | Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, Pippa Haywood, James Dreyfus, Nina Marlin.