Lovely, heartfelt performances from Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth carry this intimate movie from actor-turned-film-maker Harry Macqueen, whose 2014 debut, Hinterland, was also a two-hander about love. Tucci and Firth play Tusker and Sam, a couple who have been together for decades: Tusker is a respected novelist and Sam a musician. (Firth gives his own perfectly serviceable piano performance of Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, all the more of a lump-in-the-throat moment for its unflashiness.) The careers of both have been put on hold because Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
The couple have decided to take their camper van for a trip north, to drop in on Sam’s sister and her family, to have some alone time together and, perhaps, to come to terms with the fact that this holiday may be their last together while Tusker is still well. He is still working on a new book but is increasingly preoccupied with astronomy, gazing into the night skies, perhaps soothed by the unimaginable vastness of space, in comparison with which his problems are nothing. Is this new hobby therapeutic, or something that is accelerating his slide into enigmatic blankness?
Supernovas at first reminded me a first very uneasily of The Leisure Seeker, a syrupy picture in which Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland play a squabbling old married couple taking a last Winnebago road-trip in the shadow of dementia and mortality. But that was hammy and sugary: Supernova, for all its occasional heartstring-plucking and button-pushing, is much more restrained, both in the relative calm of the performances and in the unadorned way the countryside is shot. Its bucolic loveliness is not forced on us and there is no obvious pathetic fallacy. There is a nice moment when Sam and Tucker unsentimentally park up for the night in a supermarket car park, whose logo is at least as prominent as the rolling hills.
Tucci and Firth have a sweet and gentle chemistry, their best moment coming when they have to share a single bed in Sam’s old room in the family home where his sister still lives. They have an almost Eric-and-Ernie rapport. Elsewhere, Macqueen interestingly builds on the established personae of his leading men to show how their various mannerisms have been brought into play to deflect or neutralise difficult topics. Firth’s Sam is dry, reticent and pretty English; Tucci’s Tusker is quizzically amused and amusing in ways we have seen from him many times before – which makes a key scene, when his voice quivers on the verge of tears, even more affecting.
The key issue, as with all movies about dementia, is the exit strategy: this was famously an agonising moment in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice, with Julianne Moore, and even more agonising in Michael Haneke’s Amour, with Emmanuelle Riva dwindling into immobility and silence after a stroke.
For Tucker and Sam, it is the great unsayable – or unknowable or unthinkable – and when they do have to confront the issue it is painful in ways that none of their shared jokes or shared love can really anaesthetise. Whether the film itself fully confronts what it is like for the surviving partner to live, moment-by-moment, through the terrible ending, is another question. I’m not sure that it does. But it is a sincere and affecting portrait of two people stoically accepting mortality.