by Philip Price
Director: Harry Macqueen
Starring: Colin Firth & Stanley Tucci
Runtime: 1 hour & 35 minutes
Harry Macqueen's “Supernova” opens with a demonstration of what the title refers to: a star exploding thus allowing its molecules and all the other fantastical, unknown elements it's made up of to fall from the heavens. Some of this dust is destined to make its way to the earth where one day it will help to make-up the organisms that populate the planet. An exploding star, a burning love...we're lucky if we experience either in our lifetime. The film fades from this demonstration to the serene, static shot of two men in bed together, their hands intertwined and their love apparent. A crossfade to an overcast sky where pillowy white clouds still manage to somehow pop through pans down and lands on an older model RV where the two men, we first met a moment ago are now on a road trip together. Despite the quick-wit and sarcasm of one Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and the frustration of the other, Colin Firth's Sam, it's already been established this is not a tale of two aging, grumpy fellows on an adventure to sow their wild oats, but rather it is a tale of two lovers hoping to find some peace and solace in what is likely the last moments of their being together. We are first made aware of the reasons for this holiday when Sam stops at a grocery store on the side of the road only to return to find Tusker has disappeared. While Sam locates his partner shortly thereafter it is clear to both men that Tusker's early onset dementia is getting worse at a pace neither was likely prepared for. How could anyone ever be prepared for as much? No matter the amount of time given to process the pain it would never seem to cease. The film though, is a brisk and very tidy 90 minutes and that is all Macqueen requires to paint his sweeping yet pulverizing love story. It's almost astonishing really, how invested we become in both Tusker and Sam despite the brief running time and further, how many moments are absolutely a punch to the gut whether it be in the way Firth's voice cracks when he gets emotional or through as simple a gesture as one helping the other button his shirt. Anchored by these two effortlessly affectionate and grounded performances from Tucci and Firth (but especially Tucci, my God!), “Supernova” is a film about coming to terms with reality no matter how inequitable it may seem and the honest conversations that are eventually unearthed around it. A true portrait of companionship, a meditation on legacy, and the impact it all has on the lives of those most important to us.
It's difficult to even embark on a journey like “Supernova” given you know the destination is a heartbreaking one, but Macqueen's film is certainly well worth it. Though inherently a narrative that will tug at the heartstrings, Macqueen - who also penned the screenplay - never allows his quaint drama to fall into the realm of melodrama. Despite what is happening to him, Tucci's Tusker is naturally resistant - or at least pretends to be - to the idea he'll eventually be able to recognize even no longer himself. Tusker deflects, putting on as if he's accepting of the idea and taking his fate at face value which is why he will freely go about saying so many things and making so many promises he knows he's either lying about or that he never intends to keep. That said, it's evident from the very first interaction between he and Sam that Tusker is the more ornery, outgoing half of the couple despite quite enjoying his alone time. Tucci, who is always so skilled in being both welcoming while also making you conscious of the fact he's probably the smartest guy in the room begins with Tusker in a place where we perceive him to be something of a cynic and largely insensitive, but it quickly becomes evident how gracious he is with his wit. And so, despite this seeming acceptance of the hand fate has dealt him, Tusker struggles more with the implications of it on Sam than anything else, his beloved, his savior, and the best friend he's ever had. Tusker is intent on not becoming a burden and doesn’t want to reach a point where he feels he’s lost control of his life but is made more aware every day of how rapidly he's approaching that moment. He doesn't want to simply "become a passenger" as he phrases it, noting that "you're not supposed to mourn someone while they're still alive." The way Tusker is very self-effacing and almost glib about his diagnosis forces the reaction one would expect to get from a man who's knowingly losing his mind to transfer to his partner, another reason Tusker doesn't intend to allow this disease to take him to a place he has no desire to go.
Sam can't help but hold onto everything. Where Tusker has no desire to become something other than himself that would taint the image of how those he loves remember him, Sam can't help but want to soak up every single second with him and would choose to prolong the inevitable as long as he could. At one point, Sam even pleads with Tusker to not let him off the hook and that he now believes this is part of the reason he was placed on earth; to take care of his husband in these circumstances, to discard what's fair and only focus on the love they share and to see this through to the very end. It's a truly devastating performance from Firth whose aforementioned cracks in his voice are enough to warrant waterworks on their own, but it's interesting for despite Tusker's somewhat averted response to his illness and Sam's more appropriate response it is Firth that gives the more reserved performance. Obviously, this is largely due in part to the nature of the character's, but it's difficult to imagine this dynamic not coming, at least partially, from the 20-year friendship Tucci and Firth shared prior to starring in this film. What assists in Firth's more soft-spoken approach and what balances the chemistry the two stars already have is what Macqueen brings to the screenplay in allowing the space for his actors to develop the characters far past the trip and necessary talking points he has plotted for them.
It's made evident early on that Sam's English roots run deep in this relationship with Tusker being from the States, but seemingly adopted by Sam's family as we never glimpse nor are introduced to any of his relatives. Beginning as this modest road trip movie to resolve opportunities missed or skipped in the past, Sam and Tusker drive across the Lake District in North West England to Sam's sister (Pippa Haywood) and her husband's (Peter MacQueen) house where Tusker is set to surprise Sam with a party. It is through the interactions with family members and friends they haven't seen in some time that we see Tusker entrust the well-being of Sam to his brother-in-law, where we see Tusker ask Sam to read a tribute, he wrote to him aloud, and where Sam figures out that Tusker's condition is much worse than he thought. Sam is a concert pianist and Tusker an author with Sam having been under the impression that Tusker has continued writing over the course of their trip, putting the final touches on his latest and likely, last, novel. The pivotal scene comes when Sam looks for and finds Tusker’s notebook and observes the deteriorating state of his writing and therefore his mind but is also sidelined by other revelations that come to light from within this box of keepsakes. It's a truly heartbreaking moment to see this man who has clearly poured the entirety of his being into sustaining his partner for over two years only for, in this moment, the reality of it all to confront him with as blunt a truth as he's seen up to this point. This scene, an hour into the film, also outlines how even in the strongest of relationships there are these tendencies to conceal parts of yourself. Not in a scandalous sense, but more in desiring to preserve the image held of you; it's an act of suppression more so than it is one of deception. No one can know the mind of another, not completely anyway, and as this realization crashes down around Sam one can also see the glimmer of acceptance in this understanding of how best he can handle the situation moving forward, no matter how much it might hurt him.
Shot in a very intimate fashion by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope and laced with the soothing, piano-based score of Keaton Henson, “Supernova” is a stanza of a movie; a poem of a love story set to beautiful melody. Majestic even. We are taken in by the inherent warmness of Tusker and Sam's relationship and genuinely soothed by the beautiful sights that sweep by outside the windows of their RV. It's a technique that brings us into both the scenario and setting in such a way that we don't want the trip to ever end either; making it all the more painful that it slips away after only an hour and a half. Thus, is the magic of the movies though, even when it immerses the audience in worlds a tad bit more depressing and darker than desired-such as this. What makes Macqueen's film all the more engaging though, is that despite its inevitably depressing ending and darker subject matter, it's impossible to not smile at the light these characters bring to both one another and the world around them in turn allowing the viewer a greater sense of sympathy, compassion, and understanding towards a subject most don't care to openly discuss or acknowledge. It's funny really, how this end of life drama is ultimately inspiring others to go out and live theirs.