Supernova – love, death and the sound of silence

Harry Macqueen's new film Supernova portrays the love between two middle-aged gay men. But it is not about sexuality. The word gay is never uttered.

When I was asked to review the film for BBC Radio Scotland, I knew little about it except that it starred Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a gay couple. I had to dig a bit further to find out that it tells the story of what happens when Tucci’s character, Tusker, is diagnosed with dementia.

Supernova is aesthetically exquisite — both its musical score and stunning cinematography. Its sweeping landscape shots of the English countryside — quite literally rolling because it is the gentlest of road movies — take your breath away. Its autumnal hues are the very essence of the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness.’

But it is a film whose greatest strength is the performances of the two actors playing Tusker and his beleaguered partner, Sam. The cadence of their relationship, from playful banter to gut-wrenching conflict, is never less than compelling.

That mattered to me because I am what the characters are, a middle-aged gay man — at 60, the same age as Firth and Tucci in real life. So, when I heard about the film, my first question was, could I believe it? A deeply personal question. But one to which, for me, the answer was yes. So everything flowed from there. (Yes, they are middle class too but so am I, though not so gifted!)

You might well be thinking, why would I set the bar so high? The answer relates in part to what it means to grow up gay — and the hyper-vigilance you’re left with. To be yourself you have to be able to see yourself. But back in the early 1970s, when I realised I was gay, I couldn’t, at least not in an everyday sense.

The extraordinary change in attitudes over the last five decades means that for many of us, our sexuality has become normalised. And yet when you grow up in a ‘straitjacket’ the experience of being the other never quite leaves you. Life is navigated as much through your rear-view mirror as straight-ahead — pun intended. You have to take the road less travelled.

But the road travelled by Tusker and Sam’s old campervan in Supernova remains noteworthy because a film about a middle-aged gay couple is still so unusual. Let alone one that presents their sexuality as a given, just another relationship through which to explore universal themes.

In the film, Tusker and Sam’s sexuality is at once obvious from the very start — yet almost incidental. Three cheers for that — and the bar was cleared admirably. I learnt after watching it that Firth and Tucci are great friends and that the latter recommended the former to Macqueen. The real-life connection is undoubtedly a huge asset.

Supernova may not be a film about sexuality — or more precisely homosexuality. But it is a film about love — and death. Love, of course, is the stuff of life itself. But as the American poet, Mark Doty, wrote in his mid-90s memoir, Heaven’s Coast, after the passing of his partner, Wally, from AIDS, death — the very finiteness of life — is what makes love possible. And this is the tension that is the beating heart of Supernova.

There was another — even more personal — reason why Supernova had to resonate for me. In the mid-90s towards the end of a long illness, my late partner, Lawrence, developed HIV related dementia.

“You are still you,” Sam’s sister says to Tusker at one point. “No, I’m not, I just look like him” replies Tusker. That stung. The ravages of HIV meant that by the time Lawrence mislaid his marbles, he didn’t really look like him at all. Yet it was the loss of his intellect and wit which was the virus’s piece de resistance.

And what did resonate unmistakeably was the tugging back and forth between Tusker and Sam. Back in the day, dementia caused Lawrence to relinquish control in a way he never had during our ten feisty years together. Tusker is determined that no such fate will beset him, whatever Sam’s desire to care. He is also resolute that Sam should have a life beyond him — as Lawrence was with me — even though Sam, like me, finds the thought unbearable.

I recognised too, the sense of a shared journey that is ultimately two lone journeys, each with their own distinct dilemmas and destinies. And I was reminded of what happens when communication breaks down — not just because of misunderstanding, but because dementia renders memory irretrievable. Both men reaching out into the void, the chasm even, that opens up between them. Never closer together, never further apart.

Later in the same conversation with Sam’s sister, Tusker says, poignantly not of a person but a house, “Being sad something is gone just means it was great while it was there.” This is a film which is about living with grief before the event. Grief happens in the decline — the loss of the person you once knew as well as the loss that is felt after they have gone. And it is felt by the person leaving as well as those left behind.

Supernova is an understated, almost mannered, film. And yet that grief is laid bare — along long with all the messiness, the hurt, and the rage that comes with it, spoken and unspoken. Supernova is not afraid of silence.

Sometimes that silence is in the pauses between Tusker and Sam. Other times it is the elephant in the room with their friends and family — God knows, that felt familiar. Other times still, Macqueen turns the volume down on the dialogue to show the emotional connections — almost as if they are in slow motion.

Some critics have suggested that the film is slow and ponderous — and that the dialogue itself is clunky, even overwritten. For me, its pace allowed the story to breathe. I had time to get inside the characters’ heads and my own. It is in the quietness of the film that Tusker and Sam struggle bridge the chasm.

“Can you hear that sound?” Tusker chides Sam in the opening sequence. “It’s the sound of me ignoring you.” But silence also harbours secrets — often dark and painful— including the one upon which the film’s narrative ultimately turns. To find out what it is, you must see Supernova for yourself.

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