Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"With eloquent, understated performances from both leads and a willingness to take its time, Supernova explores not merely the issues they face but the life they share." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

There's something about the experience of being on holiday that takes us outside of time. Because we know that it can't last, the memories we acquire there, the experiences we share, are given a special place of their own. They show us, perhaps, who we might be if the pressures of ordinary life were removed. For Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), time is the enemy. Tusker has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia and is gradually losing control over his body and mind. Though he is only sixtyish and looks in good shape, he has just a few years left to live, during which he will become less and less himself.

We join Sam and Tusker as they travel through the English countryside to reconnect with old memories, family and friends. It is a journey during which they can enjoy being themselves and sharing the things that matter most, knowing that this time it won't really be possible for them to return to the real world. Tusker is quietly distressed at having had to give up his work. Sam is anticipating years as a carer. Neither can look forward to any compensation at the end of it, but what becomes clear over the course of the film is that they are finding compensation in the moment, in a space free from the obligations tied up with the past, and in one another.

Beautifully shot by Dick Pope, Supernova - its title referring to a remote event which could happen at any time with devastating consequences - showcases England at its most beautiful regardless of the weather, creating the sense of how any moment, anywhere, can be illuminated by love. There's an airiness to it which defies the more familiar claustrophobic visual language associated with the disease. It seems to suggest a process of opening up. Though he doesn't dwell on it, writer/director Harry Macqueen notes the way that it becomes necessary to let go of boundaries and conventional perspectives on dignity to manage intimate care. Tusker also invites Sam to share his intellectual and emotional struggles, particularly around his gradual loss of language. They still have secrets from one another - Sam lies about his tears, Tusker keeps his notebook private like a hidden map of his disintegration - but both know that this represents an effort to maintain distance, discreteness, which cannot last.

Originally cast in the opposite roles, Firth and Tucci each tried playing both before deciding what they were most comfortable with. They have an easy chemistry together which suits the idea of a mature, layered love. Although the journey presents a series of situations which allow us to discover these characters and their past in more depth, the real power of the film lies in how they handle small, almost incidental moments. It is not because of the illness that the jokes they share are old ones. The way they gently snipe at one another suggests a desire to be whole and real in defiance of the script that is being written for them. Sorrow is sometimes overwhelming but it is not all they have, and the film seems to contend that it is, after all, all worth it.

With eloquent, understated performances from both leads and a willingness to take its time, Supernova explores not merely the issues they face but the life they share. It is a film that will bring comfort to those who have made similar journeys with loved ones and, perhaps, to those facing dementia themselves. Tusker may gradually cease to be himself but there is never a point at which he, or Sam, fails to be human.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2021
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Old friends Sam and Tusker go on a road trip to make the most of their time together two years after Tusker was diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
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