One way to watch Harry Macqueen’s Supernova is as a dance between two captivating gazes. You’ll likely know each particular set of eyes; from Stanley Tucci’s wry looks of knowing mischief, to Colin Firth’s soulful looks of visible anxiety. Tucci’s character, Tusker, has been losing his memory because of early onset dementia, but it’s his longtime partner, Sam (Firth), who seems to have aged more rapidly in recent months. You spend a lot of the movie watching both men’s eyes, which telegraph anxiety about what the future might hold, even as they distill and reflect years of shared romantic history. Tusker, a novelist, and Sam, a concert pianist, have been a couple for about two decades. The winding road trip they’re taking in a camper through England’s Lake District is hardly their first, though with Tusker’s health rapidly declining, they know it will probably be their last. That likelihood casts melancholic shadows everywhere; even the reflexive bickering that fills the story’s opening moments takes on an air of desperate longing. In time, mutual irritation will come to seem as precious as a shared laugh.
“We’re not going back, you know,” Sam says shortly after their trip has begun. It’s a straightforward reminder (he’s trying to make sure Tusker didn’t forget anything) but it also feels heavy with metaphor, and Firth doesn’t oversell the line’s sadder implication. Tucci is similarly deft, lightly unpacking the mid-film astronomy-centric monologue that hints at the film’s title. Both actors know how to hit Macqueen’s more forceful lines of dialogue with a soft, glancing touch; they also know how to settle into the script’s familiar narrative grooves, its intimidations of mortality and grief, in ways that will yield fresh, distinctive notes of humor and emotion. Tusker and Sam’s trips doesn’t always go according to plan, but most every development in this lightly plotted story feels fitting. Tusker has left behind his medication — a deliberate decision, he insists to a protesting Sam and one of many he’s been quietly making about the future. Sam has been making plans too or at least contemplating them. As his sister (Pippa Haywood) lovingly reminds him during a stop at the family’s old country house, things won’t be able to go on as they have for much longer.
Both men, interestingly, are stubbornly resistant to change; the problem is that they define change rather differently. Sam insists on remaining at Tusker’s side until the bitter end, no matter the cost or inconvenience. But Tusker refuses to let his deteriorating health further hold Sam back from his career, so he’s arranged this trip accordingly to complete with a piano recital — Sam’s first gig in some time — as the end to the journey. The little arguments that arise along the way are ones that are rather natural, never straining for explosive effect. They provide tense dramatic punctuation to a story that otherwise coasts gently along on warmth, classical pieces and images of calm lakes and autumn leaves, gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Dick Pope. But what matters most occurs in the movie’s interiors, in the lightly furnished rooms of a rental home or the confines of the camper. One touching early scene finds the men quietly passing the time together: Sam reads one of Tusker’s novels, while Tusker listens to one of Sam’s recordings. If that sounds a little too cutesy, it nicely sums up the bond between two men who have not only built their life together on a love of the arts but who are accustomed to meeting each other halfway. The symmetry that has for the most part defined their relationship soon will be thrown forever off-balance.
At times Supernova might seem a little too tidy and vague in its approach to issues of mortality and mental decline. Tusker’s bouts of memory loss are dramatized with taste and care, and they seem to take their greatest toll on the progress of the new book he’s been trying so hard to finish. Next to some of cinema’s more exploratory dramas about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease — Poetry and the recent The Father come to mind — Supernova does initially seem to splash about in shallower waters. But to fault the movie for being insufficiently brutal in its portrait of dementia is to run the risk of misreading Macqueen’s subtler aims. This isn’t a movie about how illness ravages the mind; it’s about the difficulty and necessity of communicating honestly and lucidly while you still can. It’s also about the pleasure of watching two great actors give warm inner life to a love story.
Supernova‘s particular effectiveness depends not only on Firth and Tucci’s believability as a couple but also on the complementary nature of their respective personas: two distinct varieties of debonair charm, both presented with the utmost poise. That tendency toward emotional reserve dovetails beautifully with the characters’ own resistance to drama, which is in turn what makes the picture so dramatic. Tusker’s instinct is to deflect other people’s concerns about his condition, and Tucci underplays accordingly, registering the outward signs of encroaching dementia — a forgotten word, a misplaced memory — and then quietly minimizing those very signs. That leaves his costar with the somewhat showier role of a man gradually collapsing in the face of this partner’s stoicism. Emotional vulnerability, accompanied by a faint blush of embarrassment, has always been Firth’s sweet spot as a performer, and Supernova grants him the space to do some of the most moving work of his career. The story might climax with raised voices and broken dishes, as it must, but it knows the innate beauty of stillness, something Tusker points out when he marvels at the quiet strength of the man he loves: “You just sit there, doing nothing, propping up the entire world.” A literal supernova is the most massive and majestic of galactic events, but, as the movie knows, it also happens in silence. As compassionate as Supernova is in its pleasurably modest wavelength, it’s the touching pair of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci that brings the film its measured sorrow and acceptance of mortality.
Supernova is available on VOD