Film

Although Harry Macqueen’s Supernova is formally unadventurous, this film about a couple dealing with the onset of dementia features transcendent performances. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Supernova

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in Supernova.
Credit: Madman Entertainment

Released a decade ago, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend – a film about two young Englishmen hooking up for a weekend before one of them heads to the United States – has subsequently had an enormous influence on queer cinema. A mostly two-hander film that conveys the lyrical within the most prosaic of settings, the aesthetic simplicity and authenticity of the film is exhilarating. It has been a direct influence on some of the best queer films of the past few years, including the work of Argentinian directors Marco Berger and Lucio Castro and the English director Francis Lee.

Haigh’s film casts a shadow over Harry Macqueen’s Supernova, and not only because they share a producer in Tristan Goligher. The new film also depends for its cumulative emotional impact on the intimacy of its two central performances. And it suggests the influence of Haigh’s subsequent film, 45 Years, a wrenching study of betrayal between an elderly husband and wife.

In Supernova, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play Sam and Tusker, an ageing couple who have decided to abscond from London and take a road trip in their campervan through England’s Lake District.

Sam is a pianist and Tusker a writer, and the opening scenes deftly set up the long-term intimacy between the lovers. Their sometimes playful, sometimes truculent banter suggests that they have long made peace with the compromises and negotiations of being in a relationship. Most poignantly, we also see that they are dealing with the consequences of Tusker’s emerging dementia.

The film belongs to Firth and Tucci. For most of the running time the camera is fixed closely on the faces and bodies of the two actors, with the long shots of the overcast yet beautiful north English vistas punctuating scenes where the two men attempt to come to terms with the inevitable changes arising from Tusker’s illness. It is only in the middle of the film, when they visit Sam’s sister, Lilly (Pippa Haywood), that we are introduced to other characters. With Tusker’s covert assistance, Lilly has organised a surprise birthday for Sam.

The long party sequence is a relief from the drab, claustrophobic interiors of the campervan. Macqueen is a prudent director, his set-ups and shots are exact and careful, but there is little grace in his work. This plodding diligence becomes enervating. He doesn’t have the lyrical flair of a director such as Haigh, nor does he share that director’s catholic understanding of cinema history.

Weekend never seemed confining, even though it was largely filmed within the space of a small apartment. Haigh’s work showed the influence of early Godard and Cassavetes and also paid homage to the best of British realism. More importantly, in the exquisite care and observation of bodies within intimate spaces, it was evident how much Haigh owed to Yasujirō Ozu, as well as more recent filmmakers such as Hirokazu Kore-eda and Hong Sang-soo. Like those directors, he has the talent to make the domestic enthralling, to make it seem as big as the world.

In Supernova, the interiors remain dingy and there is no dexterity in the flow of the images. Macqueen confuses drabness for realism and unrelenting gloom for integrity. It makes the world he depicts seem smaller.

This sense is intensified by Macqueen’s pedantic screenplay. Sam and Tusker have seemingly been made artists so that we might respond to them more generously than if they were simply a wealthy, unencumbered bourgeois couple.

The film uses Tusker’s inability to write as a means of depicting his increasing dread of memory loss. It’s effective, if crude, but we glean nothing of his writing, nor of what his interactions were in the literary world before the onset of the disease. It’s a sentimental conception of the artist, as if their work ennobles them and makes then selfless: there’s no sense of ego, anxiety or obsession in either of the men.

Tusker is fascinated by astronomy. At one point during the party, he is on the lawn with Lilly’s daughter gazing at the stars, and he tells her about the physics of the cosmos. The point of this scene is his encouragement of the girl’s curiosity, but his explanations are no more complex than what one might discover in a cursory read of Wikipedia. The emotional subtext of the scene – that of an older mentor offering encouragement and wisdom to youth – is weakened by the laziness of the writing.

Dementia is a notoriously difficult condition to represent in cinema. The fracturing of consciousness central to the disease, and its terror for both the sufferer and those who love them, can’t be realised through a linear, conventional narrative structure. Tucci is an expressive actor, and he valiantly overcomes the burden of the tiresome writing to convey moments of fear and panic. His body remains vital while his mind is shattering. Yet these are only snatches of insight. For most of Supernova, we remain detached from Tusker and so, inevitably, from Sam. We never experience terror.

Although I think the film fails to illuminate the experience of dementia, and despite its staid and uninspiring construction, I remained committed to the end. This has everything to do with the performance of Colin Firth. His genteel persona is so attractive, his ease before the camera so intuitive, that it’s easy to underestimate the power of his acting. Through his breakthrough performance of Mr Darcy in the TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and his work in the Bridget Jones series, Firth has become almost a cliché of a romantic comedy lead. But what he does in Supernova is breathtaking.

Transcending the limitations of an uninspiring script, he immerses himself in the role of a man torn apart by his knowledge that anything he can do is futile against the accumulating damage of illness. Firth is generous to Tucci, quietly stepping back to allow his fellow performer to dominate in scenes. That generosity becomes integral to the film’s emotional impact. We have no doubt of the strength of Sam’s love for Tusker.

A few days after seeing Supernova, I rewatched Tom Ford’s wonderful 2009 adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel A Single Man. Firth’s performance in that film is superlative. He is convincing as a man shattered by the loss of his partner who, at the same time, has to navigate the tormenting silence of the closet demanded by a homophobic world.

Firth never negates the sexual longings that battle alongside the misery of the man’s grief. Ford’s film is arguably undermined by some miscasting in minor roles, and it was criticised for the first-time director’s promiscuous use of cinematic language, with jarring cutting between flashforwards and flashbacks and an often hyper-surreal colour palette. But there was genuine risk-taking in that playing with form, and it buttressed the intensity of Firth’s performance. Supernova is compromised by exactly this lack of boldness.

Firth is such a captivating actor that I can enjoy him in shapeless pap such as Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. I suspect that it’s no accident that his finest performances in recent times have been playing gay men, including his thoughtful work in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Maybe in our present contemporary moment, with the seismic shifts in our attitudes towards gender and sexuality, the gentility so inherent in his persona can only be played for laughs or nostalgia in heterosexual action or romantic comedy roles. You sense his hunger to do more expansive work while watching Supernova. He’s riveting.

I go to the movies for many reasons. As with all art forms, I hope to be astonished, even though it so rarely happens. I’m grateful for the opportunity to watch actors I admire, such as Firth and Tucci, given the space to create fully realised performances. But I can dream.

I hope one day Andrew Haigh and Colin Firth get to work together. Firth really soars when he’s working with a director who is equal to his valour. 

Arts Diary

INSTALLATION Because the Night

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until May 16

CULTURE SALT Festival 2021

Venues throughout the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, April 16–25

PHOTOGRAPHY William Yang: Seeing and Being Seen

Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until August 22

BALLET New York Dialects

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Gardens throughout South Australia, until April 11

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 10, 2021 as "Firth class".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.