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Away From Him

The BFI London Film Festival

Supernova (2020)

It’s always interesting to see how art speaks of unspeakable things. “Supernova” handles its particular difficulty – in this case, dementia – in the most basic and facile way: by making everything as easy as possible. Tusker’s (Stanley Tucci) only obvious symptoms are the occasional failure of memory. He does not have outbursts of violence or inappropriate behavior. His hygiene is perfect, his clothes are clean and appropriately on his body. His complaints about England are that of any grumbling old codger and not the explosive, frightened frustrations of an immigrant far from home. He doesn’t get disorientated, and when he does, his husband, Sam (Colin Firth), finds him easily. They are an arty middle-class couple – Sam a semi-retired pianist and Tusker a successful novelist – who have a family that love them and a large circle of friends. But it’s the circle of friends the truest tell that something’s a little off. All the well-fed middle-class people at the party are not just all straight, but all English. A gay, half-immigrant couple at the center of English society as welcome participants instead of outcasts on the margins? You are having a laugh.

But that kind of glossy painted-over denial is what makes “Supernova” palatable. The story of how a couple approaches its imminent death would never be an easy one, but jolly bonhomie and comfortable interiors (including not one but two Agas) beautifully filmed by Dick Pope sure do cushion the blow. Sam has a concert to give somewhere up in Scotland, so he and Tusker are on a road trip, first to visit some places where they camped as a new couple, but also to stay a few days with Sam’s sister, Lilly (Pippa Haywood); her husband, Clive (Peter Macqueen), and their daughter, Charlotte (Nina Martin, who holds her own in the major scene). The issues of Tusker’s illness are being avoided as much as possible, but of course that’s impossible, even in the mild, polite version of dementia with which Tusker is afflicted. But as the days pass, a few secrets come out, and decisions must be made.

Any story that told what is really like to live with spiraling memory loss and an incurable disease would be so dirty and depressing as to be virtually unwatchable, so the decision writer-director Harry Macqueen made to stay clean and proper is a good one. The main surprise is that he did not do a true reckoning of what it meant to cast an American in the film. Mr. Tucci is superb, as he always is, but it is simply beyond believing that his friends wouldn’t be a motley crew of immigrants, queers and other assorted outcasts. Why aren’t they at the party? Mr. Firth has the harder part, that of the saintly witness to the suffering, but is also superb, as he also always is, and even gets to do some piano playing. There are no issues of cultural friction or marital stress which an illness would exacerbate, but of course Mr. Macqueen cheated and had the outlier be the sick one. If it had been Sam who was demented, with Tusker responsible for his care, would the family have circled the wagons so helpfully? Doubt it. But who wants to make a movie taking on xenophobia as well as dementia?

“Supernova” as it exists is a solid, well-made story of an inevitable end, but it succeeded due to those cheats, and it knows. A braver movie – one truly made of stars – would have gotten a little darker to better show us the light.


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