Two men are driving through the Lake District in a battered old camper van. As they visit cafés and park in a supermarket lot, they bicker like an old married couple. Which, it becomes increasingly evident, is exactly what they are. Tusker is a US American, an author, though he keeps delaying the release of his latest novel. Sam is a concert pianist.
They stop somewhere and suddenly Tusker is nowhere to be found. Sam looks panic stricken and drives off in a rush in the camper van. After a decent drive, he finds Tusker and their dog looking about as lost as each other. We are led to believe that this isn’t the first time that this has happened, and that it is happening at increasingly regular intervals.
Welcome to 2021’s 537th film about the ageing process and debilitating mental illness. As the film progresses, we learn that one of the main reasons why Tusker’s novel is not getting finished is that he is finding it increasingly difficult to write legibly. When asked to give a speech at a surprize party (not that great a surprize – it’s in the trailer), he has to give up halfway through and hand over to Sam.
Supernova could have been a horribly sentimental film – indeed it is highly sentimental in parts, but largely manages to keep down the sickliness. It is saved by some quality acting, notably by Stanley Tucci – charming as Tusker, and a willingness to confront Serious Issues. Tucker does not want to be a burden, a “passenger”, as he puts it. He feels that by carrying on, he will ruin Sam’s life. Yet Sam’s life seems to consist of nothing more than looking after Tucker.
The film does suffer from an inferred belief that it is much more tragic for a concert pianist to stop performing to look after someone he loves than it would be for someone in a shitty job to keep working and care for his partner because he can’t afford to do anything else. If you had the impression from the camper van that Tusker and Sam are struggling financially, a visit to the palatial house where Sam grew up soon disabuses us.
This is, of course, fine. Rich people can be sad too. And yet I get the feeling that we are expected to cry more for Sam and Tusker because they are losing so much status. It doesn’t help that Sam is played by Colin Firth, star of the execrable King’s Speech, whose main argument seemed to be that being posh makes your petty problems more important than anyone else’s. I did sympathise, but found it harder to empathise with people who just didn’t feel like me or anyone I know.
Similarly, there is something ironic in the fact that although a film like Supernova would not have won a mainstream audience until very recently, both Sam and Tusker seem to belong to a different era. There’s the music they listen to – Something Stupid and House of the Rising Sun at the party, Catch the Wind and Heroes in the car, but all played so quietly that it’s there for quiet ambience and not to actually enjoy.
It’s not just the music. The only cultural or political references in the film are 2 separate mentions of Margaret Thatcher and of Section 28. You have the feeling that, having had the audacity to make a film about a gay couple, without making their sexuality a big thing (all to be congratulated), writer/director Harry McQueen felt that making any contemporary political references might scare the horses just a little too much.
Supernova also does that West Wing thing of having someone make a speech, then soon afterwards have a different character say how great the speech was. In other words, the author who put the words into both of their mouths, is preeningly telling us just how great he thinks he is. Which is pushing it a little, as, just as in the West Wing, the speech is ok, but not all that.
Maybe I’ve spent more time than I should criticising a serious film which prefers to talk about existential despair than fast cars and women. If I say that Supernova feels like a play, I am simultaneously praising and damning it. It is dialogue heavy, which means that it can be slow in parts, but at the same time, it is worth listening to what it has to say, even when it’s telling a cute girl never to stop asking questions.
If there had been fewer films this year about people with dementia, if the main characters had been people with whom I found it easier to relate, … who knows? This could have been one of the films of the year. Instead it was competent – more than competent, I would recommend that people should go and see it. It just feels like it could have been so much more.