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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Supernova

Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth are simply heartbreaking in this affecting drama about a long-term couple dealing with early-onset dementia.
By Sarah Ward
April 15, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
April 15, 2021
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Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth aren't lazy, bad or bland actors. The former has an Oscar nomination for The Lovely Bones, the latter won for The King's Speech, and neither can be accused of merely playing the same character again and again. And yet, whenever either pops up on-screen, they bring a set of expectations with them — or, perhaps more accurately, they each instantly remind viewers of the traits that have served them so well over their respective four-decade careers. In features as diverse as The Devil Wears Prada and the Hunger Games films, Tucci has given a distinctive sense of flair and presence to his many parts, as well as his innate ability to appear bemused and sarcastic about life in general. Whether as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or as Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones movies, Firth has enjoyed immense success playing reserved, introverted, dry-witted men who are more likely to ruminate stoically than to outwardly show much emotion. Teaming up in Supernova, both talents draw upon these characteristics once more, as writer/director Harry Macqueen (Hinterland) wants them to. But here's the thing about this pair of stars, who shine particularly bright in this affecting drama: far from ever settling into their own comfortable niches, they're frequently delving deeper, twisting in different directions and offering up untold surprises.

A famed novelist less interested in putting pen to paper than in peering up at the stars, Tucci's Tusker knows how to defuse any scenario with his charm in Supernova, but it's apparent that he often uses that canny ability to avoid facing a number of difficulties. An acclaimed musician with an eagerly anticipated concert in the works, Firth's Sam often says little; however, the fact that he's grappling internally with feelings he can't quite do justice to in words always remains evident. Travelling around England's Lakes District, they're not just on an ordinary campervan holiday. Neither man has simply been whiling away their time before their long-awaited returns to performing and writing, either. With stops to see Sam's sister (Pippa Haywood, Four Kids and It) and her family, and to reunite with old friends, the couple are making the most of what time they have left together. Tusker is unwell, with early-onset dementia increasingly having an impact on not only his everyday life, but upon the shared existence they've treasured for decades.

Tucci and Firth serve up big performances in Supernova, but never overt ones. Actors can command the screen and the audience's attention while delivering disarmingly intimate, delicate and intricately drawn portrayals, which is what this stellar pair manage here repeatedly. Indeed, viewers can feel the force behind their heartbreaking efforts — as is to be expected in a film about life, love, loss, mortality, ageing and illness — but these aren't forceful turns. Rather, they're so detailed, textured and lived-in that they fill every frame and scene, and every room and wide-open space that Tusker and Sam find themselves in. Both Tucci and Firth are in career-best form here, and continually referring to them together comes naturally. Their rapport is as lively, thorough and authentic as anything in the movie, with Tusker and Sam's relationship always in Macqueen's view. This isn't just a feature about one man's experiences as his mind starts to fail him, he faces the end that awaits as all and he tries to claim what control he can over a situation that keeps stripping any sense of agency away; it's a devastating portrait of a couple confronting the waning of their life together far sooner than either had ever wanted or imagined.

From its early scenes of Tusker and Sam beneath the sheets to the tough moments and conversations that arrive later, when dementia proves a topic that can no longer be ignored on their otherwise cosy road trip, Supernova is a thoughtful and tender love story through and through. Given the subject matter, that really isn't a standard feat. Unlike some films about sickness — too many, in fact — Supernova doesn't render its unwell figure a supporting player in his healthy partner's story. Similarly and welcomely, it doesn't posit that Sam's ordeal at Tusker's side is the true tragedy. In his warm, intuitive and compassionate screenplay and in his graceful direction as well, Macqueen has time for both men, their circumstances and their expectedly complicated emotions. But, in repeatedly showing how Tusker feels when he can't remember words and starts to forget where he is, conveying how his uncertain future is already taking a heavy toll upon his lucid moments and expressing the weight he feels in being acutely aware that he's losing his sense of self, the film never even dreams of sidelining its ailing point of focus.

Awards and nominations typically follow dramas that wade through comparable terrain; for Michael Haneke's shattering Amour, Julianne Moore's superb performance in Still Alice and this year's Anthony Hopkins-starring standout The Father, they have in the past decade alone, for example. A plethora of shiny trophies and nods haven't yet come Supernova 's way, though — it is sometimes a little too neat and literal in its story, and in its stylistic choices as well — however, this is always a beautifully conceived, observed, performed, shot and executed film. Its leading men make the last flourishes of Tusker and Sam's romance, and of Tusker's mind, feel as explosive as the astronomical event that gives the movie its name. Cinematographer Dick Pope (Peterloo, Mr Turner) ensures that starry skies, green fields and cramped caravans alike all hover between the commonplace and the otherworldly. That contrast of the everyday and the ethereal sums up Supernova perfectly, and encapsulates every grand romance, too. Falling in love and spending your life with someone feels like entering into another universe, after all — and when that threatens to turn to stardust, it does so with a bang.

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