Movie Review: “Supernova” Is Subtle and Unassuming—In All the Best Ways

Loving and quiet, “Supernova” portrays an understated, yet touching depiction of partners Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci)’s relationship as Tusker struggles with early-onset dementia. Written and directed by Harry Macqueen and released in U.S. theaters on January 29, “Supernova” takes us on a journey through England’s Lake District as Sam and Tusker visit friends and family in an (unstated) “last hurrah” before Tusker’s condition worsens. In the greenery of the English countryside, we watch as Sam and Tusker navigate their relationship, while we’re asked to ponder, as Stanley Tucci puts it: “love and loss, but love first.” Spoilers ahead. 

The bulk of “Supernova”’s artistic success comes from the performances and chemistry between the two lead actors. Firth and Tucci stun in the quiet moments (which are abundant), where a linking of fingers or an averted glance says more than dialogue ever could. In a subdued film like “Supernova,” the more traditional premise and slow pace has the potential to bog the film down in maudlin displays of cheap sentimentality or melodrama. However, the leads bring a graceful compassion to their characters, and the strength of their performances keeps us invested in the story, and perhaps more importantly, their relationship. Additionally, due to the plot, the film’s tension relies on the rapport between the two leads. Most of the conflict arises from the characters’ fear of the unknown, in contrast to the two decades they have spent together; much like the vast night sky Tusker is so fond of gazing into, the couple’s future seems just as uncertain and immense. The believability that these two characters have known, and loved, each other for 20 years is the foundation of this tension, built on the fear that their shared knowledge of each other will be lost, or irrevocably changed. Because the disruption of the known creates the tension and conflict, it was imperative for the main characters to have realistic, emotionally intimate, and convincing chemistry. On this front, Firth and Tucci delivered incredibly well, with chemistry that felt natural and intimate (no doubt in part due to Firth and Tucci’s 20-year long friendship). Sam and Tusker’s good-natured bickering, quiet closeness, and organic familiarity all work to lay the groundwork of some of the film’s tensest scenes, where we’re enraptured by the simultaneously deepening and healing cracks in their relationship. 

Another one of the film’s key strengths is its comfort with silence, subtlety, and staying in the quieter spaces within its narrative. For instance, the film’s introduction of the characters feels refreshingly natural. Sam is introduced as a former concert pianist during a conversation in a cosy camper van when Tusker remarks that he never plays “Salut d’Amour” by Edward Elgar for him anymore (his favorite piece). Subsequently, Tusker is introduced as a novelist through a single shot of Sam reading his book, and a short conversation about his writing. More significantly, Tusker’s dementia is never directly referred to by name, only alluded to. For instance, our introduction to his dementia occurs in an unassuming moment when he wanders off during a grocery run. When Sam finds him walking alone on the side of a road with their dog, we’re situated inside the camper looking out the windshield with only the rumble of the engine for company, no longer privy to their conversation. When Sam leads Tusker back to the car, we feel as if something’s changed, but we’re never given specifics, almost as if the film were physically guiding us to realise what is important and what isn’t. This subtlety makes it so that the film doesn’t feel flashy, cheaply dramatic, and most importantly, builds trust between the viewer and the film. 

For those craving a more in-your-face and adventurous story, “Supernova” may feel slow, or even boring. There are long, beautiful (and perhaps indulgent) shots of rolling hills and gleaming waters, and the film’s relaxed amble pace may feel dawdling. It’s definitely not strikingly original or avante garde, but has a true heartfelt and gentle emotional core. If you’re in the mood for something more subdued but still familiar, moving, and fulfilling, “Supernova” is certainly an excellent choice. In the backseat of Sam and Tusker’s beige and white striped camper van, “Supernova” will take you along for a moving, sincere, and touching journey. And although we’re not assured with a happy ending, “Supernova” challenges our need for one in the first place, asking: can it really be a tragedy, if you’re with the one you love? With stunning performances, an intimate atmosphere, and a subtlety that allows us to slow down with the characters where it hurts, “Supernova” is a film to catch. 

“Supernova” receives 4/5 stars for its unassuming story, but incredible performances and subtle atmosphere.