Harry Macqueen’s Supernova is briefly remarkable

This love story starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci provokes the question: “Can one scene be so good that it wrecks the rest of the film?” 

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What’s eating Colin Firth? This preoccupied actor, never knowingly carefree, is perfectly cast in Supernova as Sam, whose long-term partner Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is succumbing gradually to early-onset dementia. Firth will always be associated with his eye-catching dip in the lake in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice but it’s a hair shirt, not a wet shirt, which his pained expression calls to mind.

For most of Supernova, the couple are wending their way across the Lake District in a mobile home, though Nomadland this is not: these are wealthy, creative gays, complete with cute dog and comfortable knitwear. Sam is a British concert pianist returning to the stage after an extended absence; his upcoming recital is to be the climactic stop on their journey. Tusker is an American novelist struggling with his latest opus. He is also the complainer-in-chief, whether objecting to the satnav’s imperious tones or chiding Sam for his cautious driving: “How about exploring the outer reaches of fifth gear?”

With their volleys of jokes, moans and memories, both men are trying to keep at bay the ineluctable truth of their life together: Tusker is fading fast. Informed that he is still the man Sam fell in love with, he replies: “No I’m not. I just look like him.”

That dislocation takes a visual as well as verbal form. The editor Chris Wyatt sometimes chooses ghostly extended dissolves over hard cuts. Mimicking a kind of out-of-body experience, Dick Pope’s camera pursues the vehicle along the road from an elevated vantage point, suggesting a combination of guardian angel and surveillance operative. The coolness and grandeur of these sequences is pleasingly at odds with the intimate, interior register of the rest of the film. Keaton Henson’s troubled, cello-heavy score adapts to both modes.

A film with actors as skilled as Firth and Tucci is unlikely ever to be dull, but Supernova briefly enters the realm of the remarkable halfway through, during a stopover at Sam’s childhood home, where his sister Lily (Pippa Haywood) now lives. Impermanence hangs in the air: Lily is selling the house, but hasn’t told Sam yet; Tusker’s mortality is on everyone’s mind; and the couple are squeezed into a child-sized bed, the latest in a string of temporary spaces in which they lay their heads. (We never see them at home.) There is time, though, for a celebratory dinner with loved ones, at which Tusker plans to make a speech.

Except that when he stands up to begin reading, he can’t do it, so he hands the sheet of paper to Sam, who delivers it in his stead. The writer-director, Harry Macqueen, keeps the camera largely on the silent partner as he listens to his sentiments being expressed by someone else.

Tucci has always resembled a tortoise deprived of its shell, but his face here is a marvel as it cycles through bewilderment, gratitude and crumpled agony. At times Tusker looks amazed, as though he is hearing his own thoughts articulated by a mind-reader. It’s not even clear that he recognises every word now that clarity comes and goes like the reception on a faulty radio.

The other component of the scene’s brilliance is the way in which its emotion is redirected, with Sam forced to read an account of his own virtues in the third person: yet another of the picture’s out-of-body experiences.

Of course, if you’re going to play a trump card long before the end of a film, you had better be certain that what remains will be engaging in entirely different ways. The wedding speech by Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge) near the start of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves seemed to wring all the emotion out of the audience, who had no inkling that there was a cruel new variety of heartbreak lurking around the bend. The tear-duct-draining prologue of Pixar’s Up didn’t drag down the rest of the film, which thrived instead on pleasures more akin to a swashbuckler.

Supernova, on the other hand, answers the question, “Can a scene be so good that it wrecks the rest of the film?” with a regretful, “Sometimes, yes.” Once Sam and Tusker move on to their next stop, and a familiar vocabulary of fights, tears and broken plates, the movie becomes too routine to be saved by its star-gazing metaphors.

The problem might have been solved by reshuffling the pack to push the party scene nearer to the end; the film starts, after all, with a flash-forward, so why not close on a flashback? At least the error is nothing worse than a gamble that didn’t pay off.

Besides, some directors go an entire career without making anything decent – whereas Macqueen has directed half a good film, and shaped dauntless performances from Firth and Tucci, on only his second go. (His debut Hinterland, in which he also starred, came out in 2014.) Though he loses control of the material eventually, the potent miracle of that party scene lingers on, and no one should be judged too harshly for the crime of saving the best for the middle. 

“Supernova” is in cinemas from 25 June

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 23 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us

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