February 5, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Harry Macqueen
Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed locations in England, the dramatic film “Supernova” features an all-white cast representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two middle-aged men (one British, one American), who have been love partners for about 20 years, have very different ways of coping when one of them gets early-onset dementia.
Culture Audience: “Supernova” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted and understated dramas about how loved ones cope with a health crisis.
The dramatic film “Supernova” deftly and admirably avoids a cloying and melodramatic tone that “disease of the week” TV-movies tend to have. Instead, this thoughtfully made movie (written and directed by Harry Macqueen) dispenses with syrupy sentimentality and realistically captures the gradual heartbreak of two love partners who must come to terms with one of the partner’s early-onset dementia. Thanks to emotionally authentic performances from Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, “Supernova” doesn’t have a lot of flash but it has a lot of heart.
“Supernova,” which takes place in unnamed locations in England, features a road trip during a large section of the movie. However, don’t expect this road trip be a madcap adventure. The trip is somewhat tense, occasionally somber and peppered with occasional jokes that come as a distraction for the two middle-aged lovers who are on this trek. Therefore, the pace of “Supernova” might be a little to slow for some viewers, but there’s a reason for a lot of the emotional weight that these two partners are feeling.
In the beginning of the movie, Sam (played by Firth) and Tusker (played by Tucci) are shown in their Autotrail Cheyenne RV camper, as they drive in scenic areas of England. They have some mild bickering that’s not unusual for couples who’ve been together for a long time. Tusker wants Sam to drive faster, while Sam thinks his driving is just fine.
Tusker wants to change the music that’s playing in the car. And later, Tusker gripes that the female voice on the GPS “sounds like Margaret fucking Thatcher.” If Tusker seems cranky, he has good reason to be: He has dementia, and this trip is a vacation to help ease the stress of this medical problem.
It’s never stated if Sam and Tusker are officially married, but they wear wedding rings. Sam is British and a classical pianist, while Tusker is American and a novelist. They’ve been together for about 20 years. It’s revealed later in the movie that Tusker moved to England to be with Sam, but it’s not clear how they met. Tusker and Sam have their dog Ruby with them on this road trip.
During the course of the movie, it’s clear that Tusker and Sam love each other deeply, but they have different ways of coping with Tusker’s dementia. Sam, who is more of a serious-minded introvert, tends to keep his feelings to himself and plans to retire so that he can become Tusker’s full-time caretaker. Tusker, who is more of a fun-loving extrovert, hates the idea of Sam retiring because Tusker doesn’t want to think of himself as a burden. However, Tusker is more realistic about how much his personality will change from the dementia, while Sam is in denial and tries to fool himself into thinking that Tusker’s personality won’t change.
Sam and Tusker also disagree on how Tusker should medically treat his dementia. Sam is more open to using prescribed medication, while Tusker doesn’t want to take any medication at all. During their road trip, Sam finds out that Tusker had secretly removed Tusker’s pills that Sam had packed for the trip and deliberately left the pills at their home.
Sam is upset about Tusker not having the pills, but Tusker adamantly says: “I don’t want them … They remind me that I’m ill. And I don’t want that. Not right now.” Meanwhile, Sam worries that Tusker refusing to take the medication will make the dementia worse at a faster rate. Tusker wants to block out those concerns and just live his life the best way that he can.
It’s not stated how long it’s been since Tusker got his diagnosis, but he mentions more than once that in about six months, it’s very likely that he won’t remember the identities of the people in his life. It terrifies Tusker, but he’s more willing than Sam to talk openly about this mental deterioration. Sam wants to change the subject every time Tusker wants to talk about it.
There are also signs that Tusker is already becoming forgetful. In an early road trip scene, Sam wakes up in bed to find that Tusker isn’t there. Sam frantically drives until he finds Tusker calmly out standing near a road with their dog Ruby and seemingly unaware of the panic he’s caused. Sam hugs Tusker in a way that they both know that Tusker is losing his faculties and they feel powerless to stop it.
Despite this depressing health problem, Tusker tries to keep his sense of humor intact. While he and Sam are at a diner during their road trip, Tusker plays a harmless prank on the waitress by telling her different ways that she can get Sam’s autograph. The waitress doesn’t know who Sam is or why he might be “famous,” but she doesn’t want to be rude. She’s perplexed and doesn’t quite know how to respond, so she just nods her head vaguely.
As the waitress walks away, Sam mildly scolds Tusker for confusing the waitress and tells Tusker that it’s time to retire the prank because it doesn’t work half of the time. Tusker chuckles and says he likes this prank precisely because it does work half of the time. This back-and-forth banter is affectionate and shows that despite these minor irritations, this couple has a loving relationship.
During their road trip, Sam and Tusker visit Sam’s sister Lilly (played by Pippa Haywood), Lilly’s husband Clive (played by Peter Macqueen) and Lilly and Clive’s daughter Charlotte (played by Nina Marlin), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Lilly and Clive apparently live in the house where Lilly and Sam grew up.
In another realistic “slice of life” couples scene, Sam and Tusker briefly disagree about where they’re going to sleep while visiting. Lilly says that they can sleep in the bedroom that Sam had as a child, while Sam doesn’t like that idea and offers to sleep in the camper. Tusker doesn’t want to sleep in the camper and convinces Sam that they should sleep in the bedroom, which is decorated in the same way that Sam had it before he moved away from home. The bed is barely big enough for two people, and Sam accidentally has a mild fall out of the cramped bed. It’s played for laughs.
Sam and Tusker keep each other amused by making tape recordings of each other’s conversations. They role play as if they’re doing an interview for a radio broadcast. Tusker says during one of these taping sessions: “Welcoming to Dementia Hour on BBC Four.” Tusker asks Sam, “How has it been for you?”
Sam replies, “It has its moments.” Tusker then says, “If you had one wish in the world, what would it be.” Sam responds, “I wish this holiday wouldn’t end. And you?” Tusker says in an affectionately exasperated voice, “I wish I didn’t have this thing [dementia], idiot!”
Unbeknownst to Sam and Tusker, Lilly and Clive have planned a surprise dinner party for them with several of Sam’s and Tusker’s friends. It’s at this dinner party that Sam sees more uncomfortable signs that Tusker’s condition has worsened. Tusker is about to read a speech, but he can’t do it because of the dementia. Instead, he asks Sam to read it.
It’s one of the best scenes in the movie because it shows Sam trying not to lose control of his emotions while he reads Tusker’s words of love and loyalty, while Tusker is trying not to look embarrassed that he couldn’t read his own speech. In the beautifully written speech, Tusker says about Sam: “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
Outside during this evening party, Tusker shares his knowledge of astronomy with Charlotte. He points to the stars in the sky and tells her about the life span of a star: “When the body gets really old, it runs out of fuel, and it explodes like a firework. And when that star has died, it becomes really, really bright and shoots out all this stuff … And eventually, all that stuff travels over years and years … and it’s eventually what makes us.”
This supernova description, which obviously inspired the movie’s title, is a metaphor for how Tusker wants to live out his last days and what he hopes his legacy will be. Earlier in the movie, there’s another scene where Tusker and Sam look at a celestial map on their camper ceiling and Tusker points out the stars on the map. It’s one of many glimpses into how this couple had been living a relatively quiet and stable life together until the dementia diagnosis changed everything, but Sam and Tusker are still trying to hold on to a sense of normalcy.
When Lilly and Tusker have a private conversation together at the party, he tells her how the dementia is affecting his relationship with Sam. “You know what the hard part is?” Tusker comments. “You’re not supposed to mourn someone while they’re still alive.” Lilly replies, “You’re still you, Tusker. You’re still the guy he fell in love with.” Tusker says ruefully, “No, I’m not. I just look like him.”
During the party, one of the friends named Tim (played by James Dreyfus) tells Sam privately that Tusker confided in Tim that Tusker can no longer write with a pen and paper. Later, when Sam and Tusker get home, Sam discovers that it’s true: Sam looks through Tusker’s journals and finds that the most recent journal entries are illegible scribbles.
And later, Sam finds something else that is heartbreaking and devastating. It leads to Sam and Tusker having a reckoning and being forced to confront each other on how they’re going to prepare for Tusker’s worsening dementia. And that includes having the difficult conversation over what to do if Tusker has to be put in an assisted care facility.
“Supernova” could easily have been a stage play because of how the dialogue is written, but the story benefits from being a cinematic version. Cinematographer Dick Pope perfectly captures the scenic outdoor locations during the road trip. These wooded areas and mountain-surrounded lakes provide a great counterbalance of tranquility to the slowly building storm in Sam and Tusker’s relationship.
Writer/director Macqueen brings a simple intimacy to the movie that might disappoint people looking for showboat-ish dramatic scenes, but it actually works better that this movie isn’t so heavy-handed with its difficult subject matter. And unlike a lot of movies about someone facing a medical crises, “Supernova” doesn’t have any scenes in a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office. It’s another reason why the movie isn’t as weepy as it could have been, although there are some definite tearjerking moments.
Firth and Tucci, who are longtime friends in real life, have a natural and easy chemistry with each other that suits the respectful nature of Sam and Tusker’s relationship. Sam and Tusker are affectionate with each other, but their romance is relatively reserved and doesn’t have a lot of over-the-top passion. Tusker might want to go out in a blaze of glory like a supernova, but he and Sam have the type of enduring love that’s more like the steady light of the sun.
Bleecker Street released “Supernova” in select U.S. cinemas on January 29, 2021. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is February 16, 2021.