Is “Supernova” misery lit?

By Kor O’Connell – Modern Languages student at the University of Tuscia - Italy

MARCH 30, 2021

Looking for something light-hearted? A bit of entertainment to distract you from thoughts of disease and decay? A cuddly romance film that’ll take your mind off the looming spectre of death and doom infesting every corner of our public consciousness?


Well then steer clear of “Supernova”, the feel-bad film of the year! It’s got the whole kit and caboodle: dementia, ageing gay couples, acclaimed actors, tear-streaked confessions, a delicate violin score by Keaton Henson. In other words, an automatic Academy Award contender.

It might seem cynical to consider an otherwise tender, well-meaning love story as just another piece of “Oscar bait”, but there are precedents. The 2021 film can be seen as a culmination of trends in international cinema. 

From ill-fated queer love stories to tales of mental illness, Alzheimers and dementia, films that explore the more wretched aspects of human existence have been very successful during awards seasons.

Not to say that the movie is manipulative, exactly. The film itself is rather straight-forward. It concerns a trip across England, taken by a long standing gay couple, Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and Sam (Colin Firth). The trip is a sort of victory lap for both of them, to a certain extent. Sam, once a pianist, is coming out of retirement for one final recital. Tusker, an American ex-pat and author, wants to visit his friends and loved ones before it's too late. He has early onset dementia, and isn’t sure how much longer he’ll remember them. Or even Sam, for that matter.



It’s a story we’ve heard before, but the film never strays into the superficial or trite. Indeed, the film’s main strength is its specificity. The characters of Sam and Tusker, though low-key, are intricately delineated through sharp dialogue, witty asides, meaningful glances. Tusker is a wry, sarcastic joker, sensitive yet playful. Sam is meek and thoughtful, a stickler for the rules. Their plight is made ever more tragic when we see how keenly they interact, and how perfectly they complement each other. A host of small, happy moments that will be lost, invariably, to the illness.



For many people, this sounds like a miserable time at the movies. And yet, there is an audience for this sort of thing. “Misery porn”, as I like to call it, has always been a surefire hit, when pitched appropriately. From the earliest days of Hollywood, it seemed that films were not to be taken seriously if they weren’t big, long and sad. The spectacle had to go hand in hand with romance, or the big picture lost its heart. Kiss kiss bang bang, as Pauline Kael would have put it. And where does a conveniently plotted romance lead if not tragedy?



This birthed multiple generations raised on saccharine, “tragic” love stories. This arguably reached its apex with 1970’s “Love Story”. This, indeed, introduced the element of terminal illness, integrated less clumsily by classic tear-jerkers like Terms of Endearment (1983) and Steel Magnolias (1989). This trope was then run into the ground by the embarrassing and embarrassingly popular Nicholas Sparks films, that honed in on a perfect formula for the genre: take a pretty heteronormative couple, introduce a trivial reason they shouldn’t be together, then throw a left-of-field tragedy at them to give this soggy little confection some backbone. Then watch as the money rolls in…



So on one end, you have an ample audience of teary eyed middle-aged women (and gay men) craving a good old fashioned sob story. The choice of Tucci and Firth seems strategic in this case, given their appeal to the target demographic. They are unquestionably perfect for their parts, almost type-cast. Tucci, with his snarky pedigree, uses his quips to offset the film’s gloom, and he strikes an odd balance between delicate and steadfast. Firth, on his end, is still as swoon-worthy as he was almost 30 years ago in Pride and Prejudice, with his stiff upper-lip belying a deep love for his significant other. In beautifully performed closeups, Firth’s character sometimes falters in his resoluteness. You can see him struggle with the concept of loss in real time, even when surrounded by friends and family. Occasionally, he loses that stoicism in spectacular fashion.



It’s the sporadic nature of these outbursts that really weighs the film down, in my mind. The movie seems to be walking a tight-rope where others would have bouldered through carelessly. Gone are the bouts of anger and frustration one associates with dementia, or even the confusion and lack of sympathy from those who aren’t affected by it. The movie lacks the rawness and even sensational nature found in films like “Still Alice” or “Amour” (2012). There are no jolts or shocks. One of the greater sources of tension is whether or not this will be Sam’s last piano recital. Drama! Intrigue! The plot seems corseted, almost. One can only surmise the filmmakers felt burdened, perhaps, by the fact of having to tell a gay story. Seeing two older gay men in love, on screen, could already be alienating enough for mainstream audiences. They were trying to hedge their bets.



And yet, the film does not shy away from showing their romance with frankness. The first image we see is them intertwined in bed, nude, snuggling like teenagers. The film features a beautiful scene of them kissing amid the tears. They cuddle, they’re intimate, they love each other. Though it is refreshing to see a gay couple depicted so sweetly and unpretentiously, it’s difficult not to insert the film into the wider narrative of queer cinema going mainstream, a trend that’s been on the rise ever since “La vie d’Adèle” (2013). Big production companies have come to the enlightened realisation that, apparently, gay people watch movies! And if they saw films with people like them onscreen, well then, boys, we might actually be able to squeeze some serious cash out of this whole LGBTQIA charade! Get woke bro!



The only thing that could save this movie from pandering, melodrama and cloying awards consideration, is a solid motivation behind it. A drive to tell a story with meaning, beyond getting butts in seats. And there is one. Despite the occasional whiff of soapiness bubbling to the surface, and the presence of tropes that almost no romance can avoid, the film has something to say about the condition of being an older gay couple. It’s never explicit, but there is an overwhelming tension about the future that trickles into all of their discussions. How will they be treated if Tusker is ever put in a home? The sad reality of self-neglect in older people, especially men, hangs heavy in the air as well.



The meticulousness of the film’s craft is not to be disregarded, either. The love and attention to detail with which the film was composed is evident in every frame, with breathtaking cinematography from Dick Pope and an admittedly beautiful, wistful score. The framing of the shots in particular helps us understand a great deal about where the characters are at, emotionally.



The first line of dialogue in the film is spoken by Firth, who claims: “We’re not going back, you know?” He is speaking about returning home to retrieve a forgotten item, yet the question weighs over the rest of the movie like a prophecy. This a one way trip. Even if they do return, nothing will be the same. I won’t give anything away, but suffice to say the films ends on a question mark, not a full-stop. It leaves the characters with big decisions to make, and a heavy conscience. To paraphrase Kael once more, life is too complex for facile endings.



So, to summarise… Misery porn? Not quite. A good film? Definitely.