You wouldn’t exactly call Harry Macqueen’s drama of love and loss comforting, but it does honour the cinematic convention that mortal illness is harder on the carer than on the patient. This is sometimes true. The world would be a less frightening place if it were always true (which it most certainly is not).
One can hardly criticise Macqueen for skewing his own screenplay in that direction. These stories are also worth telling, and few viewers will be unsatisfied with Colin Firth’s qualified English warmth as a man coping erratically with his flintier partner’s early-onset dementia. Still, if you were on the hunt for a further whinge, you could point out that, as in Amour, Still Alice and the recent The Father, this dementia story is set among the comfortably and tastefully wealthy. Sam (Firth) is a concert pianist. Tusker (Stanley Tucci), his companion for many years, is an acclaimed novelist. Their story plays out during a visit to big-house relatives in the Lake District. Money is not one of the issues playing on their minds.
Those pernickety qualifications noted – along with the usual observations about straight actors playing gay roles – there is little to fault in this beautifully performed, admirably restrained film. Firth and Tucci are convincingly complemented. The British actor has always admitted a soft centre beneath his upper-middle-class carapace. Tucci’s more coiled persona suits a character who, even before the condition emerged, exhibited a taste for waspishness.
We begin with the two men driving their camper van through rich, welcoming countryside. British and Irish road movies really are different beasts to their American equivalent. We hear the shipping forecast rather than Ry Cooder. The journey is not the destination; the destination is the destination and, in the case, the destination is a house owned by Sam’s sister. Along the way, hints are dropped as to Tusker’s mental troubles. Sam wonders why he doesn’t ask for help with his packing. Words get confused. Eventually, during a service stop, Tusker goes missing and is eventually tracked down standing puzzled by a nearby field.
The conversation is always about his condition and yet often not quite about it. Sam suggests moving to a bungalow because it would be “better suited”. Tusker raises an eyebrow and says: “Better suited to what?” When the rawness is revealed, the characters still stand inches back from the truth. “You’re not supposed to mourn someone when they’re still alive,” Tusker complains. That is not quite fair. Sam carries the sadness around with him, but, if anything, he is urging his companion to connect more fully with the life that is left.
It is a terrific piece of writing about the difficulties of living on the fringes of a catastrophe – acknowledging the danger, but rarely addressing the true terrors that await. When Tusker says goodbye to his in-laws, his brow furrows just the tiniest bit as he accepts this may be the last time he recognises them. Others can fantasise and obfuscate. He finds it less easy to avoid the realities.
At the centre of the drama, Keaton Henson’s fine score becomes more agitated as Sam and Tusker engage with the most harrowing options open to them. The dispute ultimately brings us to a place of resolution. That’s not how Ingmar Bergman dealt with looming death in films such as Cries and Whispers. He was less likely to argue that the folk around the sick room have it worse than the afflicted. But the consolations of a softer film like Supernova are not to be disdained. The two flawless performances, presented in the polite shades of prestige British cinema, make a winning case for the virtues of seasoned affection. An irresistible treat.
Opens on June 25th