Supernova, written and directed by Harry Macqueen, is a moving film about two men, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), who’ve been together for 20 years. They are a compatibly tempered pair whose differences only feel like points of affiliation. Sam is American; Tusker is English. Both are artists: Sam a pianist, Tusker a writer at work on a novel that does not seem to be going well. Writer’s block is, we learn, not the issue. Tusker has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. And Sam is committed to seeing him through it.
A difficulty of terminal illness is that you may begin to mourn the dying — who are still alive, still here, even if slipping — as if they are already dead. And so a heaviness, not unearned, accompanies so much of what happens in this film. This in many ways lends itself to Supernova’s singular strength: the sense of knowing history between these men and, with it, the things that needn’t be said for our benefit, because they’ve already been said. Having already been brought out into the open, they are now a straightforward, known quantity in the men’s lives together. The two are living with it; they are dealing with it. They are preparing themselves for a future full of the same, with only Tusker’s decline and eventual death marking the difference. Sam, for his part, has accepted this vision: He is prepared to take care of the man he loves. This being a performance by Colin Firth, that commitment comes across in nearly every shot of the man, particularly thanks to wisdom in his eyes, which bear no illusions about the time to come. But you also feel it in the sense of utter weight, the heavy endurance of constant, watchful care, that anchors Sam to the ground with loving seriousness.
Hence the appeal of Macqueen’s drama, in which the men take a road trip to England’s Lake District whose ostensible endpoint is a recital that Sam will give despite (he says) some rustiness — a trip that cannot avoid the inevitable sense of last rites, for Tusker in particular. This being a drama about dementia, we get the incidents — familiar ones, yes, which doesn’t automatically make them less true — indicative of a disease that has long since begun to run its course. Tusker gets lost, on a pit stop, while walking the dog. Minor fits of forgetfulness, like Tusker’s inability to remember the word “triangle,” punctuate their conversations. A visit to see family and friends cannot help but feel like a celebratory memorial, no matter how much the mood, on the surface, is pervasive with a sense of “See you next year.” For Tusker, this is a difficult prospect to imagine. He has not even brought his medication with him. “They remind me that I’m ill,” he says.
The film accordingly owes a great deal of its power to its actors, who are, of course, more than merely plausible as longtime partners, whose way through the small dramas of the everyday is the movie’s real substance, maybe even more so than the harbinger of continued illness suffusing these same interactions. They are a pleasurably, comfortably boring older couple, and Macqueen’s filmmaking is virtuously patient in its depiction. It also, from the writing down to the images used to bring that writing alive, betrays the secret to come — a secret, a choice, that makes the movie more dramatically urgent and also exposes its limits.
There’s a scene of Sam stealing away to look through Tusker’s things that is as moving as it is, in terms of the film’s vision, telling. It involves Sam making a series of challenging discoveries, among them a journal that clarifies what Tusker has meant, all along, when alluding to the difficulty of the trouble he’s had writing lately. A question arises of whether the film’s view of dementia is overly simple or whether Tusker’s condition really has accelerated so quickly that merely flipping through a journal of his writing — moving from tight, fleshed-out script to garbled nothingness — could properly summarize his decline.
But there’s also the question of what the film does with what else Sam finds, which is where the film hits something of a wall. In place of a spoiler, here are the words of Tusker himself: “I’m becoming a passenger. And I am not a passenger. This thing is taking me to a place where I don’t want to go.” And perhaps to a place where the film doesn’t quite want to go. For what it does with the revelations at its core sells them somewhat short, renders them into a single dramatic conflict that only barely gets to the heart of the matter, instead resolving itself in the comfort of love everlasting.
Which is not to say that this form of love — between two men, that is — should so easily be taken for granted. And indeed as a film about two gay men in their middle age, Supernova does all the right things, anchors its sense of conviction in rhythms and silences, in-jokes and private conflicts, that cohere into a natural portrait of being together. In a word, it’s a solid, emotive drama, all the more so for the pain at the movie’s center being equally natural, valid, inevitable. Cinematographer Dick Pope’s beautiful but not overly grand views of England’s mountainous north, his lensing of the interiors of the couple’s RV, knitting the couple’s life together with an expansiveness that belies the limits of their physical space, are key to the film’s impact.
As is Macqueen’s writing. For what it lacks in the essences and interiors it imagines for these men, it makes up for in the lines shared between them. Tusker, perhaps by dint of being the writer of the pair, is full of sharp observations, deployed by Tucci with not even outright, enunciated wit, but a rather likable casualness and sensitivity, even when the observations are barbed. “She sounds like Margaret fucking Thatcher,” Tusker says of the voice on their RV’s GPS. “First its Section 28, and now she’s going to tell us where to go on our fucking holiday.” It is a line befitting its character: Annoyance meets rage meets the flippancy of middle-class comfort and the lives Tusker and Sam, in defiance of Thatcher, have managed to live. Later, he says: “You’re not supposed to mourn someone while they’re still alive.” Later, still: “If you love me, you’ll let me do this. If you really love me.”
The this of that last sentiment is in some ways where Supernova really begins. It’s the choice, made by Tusker, that sets the film in motion, even if one of these men only discovers as much midway. It is an explosive, utterly personal choice — and the film’s central failure is in too easily smoothing it over. Love, the film tells us — Tusker tells us — is what should make it possible. To really have begun with that choice, to open with that wound, would have led to a more revealing, less comforting movie. It would have gotten uglier in ways consistent with who Supernova tells us these men are. But love, not ugliness, is adamantly the point; aversion to the ugliness to come is, indeed, the heart of this couple’s dilemma. They bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, as one of them notes. And Supernova — opting to move us (which it does) rather than risk what feels like the real confrontation at its center — only scratches the surface of that titanic effort.