‘Supernova’: Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci Eloquently Capture Love as a Couple Grappling With Dementia
Not all great or searing moments in life have to be loud or bombastic. Some are quietly painful, full of private agonies. “Supernova” follows a gay couple facing a terrible inevitability, while still carrying on the semblance of a normal life. This kind of understated drama soars or fails depending on casting. Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci carry every moment of this film, bringing to it tenderness and despair. Director Harry Macqueen’s approach is to tell a story so simple and plausible, it could very well be happening somewhere in the world right now.
Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci) have been together so long they can guess each other’s moves or thoughts. By now even when one of them loses their temper it barely rattles the other. As the film opens they are road tripping in an RV through cloudy rural England. Their destination is a concert where Sam, a famous pianist, is set to perform. Tusker is a writer supposedly composing a new work even Sam hasn’t read yet. But a specter hovers over their journey: Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. For him this trip is almost one final opportunity for them to journey together and experience life and friends before his memories are lost forever. Sam feels he is ready for the inevitable and vows to take care of Tusker till the end. But Tusker feels the sorrow of knowing he will lose what makes him who he is, and is prepared to make final choices Sam might not be prepared to accept.
The title of Macqueen’s script alludes to both Sam and Tusker’s amateur fascination with star-gazing through a telescope they bring along to the trip, and to a broader, poetic subtext. Stars, like emotions or love, grow to raging, hot levels and while their physical form may eventually die, their matter or star dust continues to journey through the cosmos. It’s a grand idea attached to a very intimate, microcosmic story. “Supernova” is elegant and truly meditative. We are like backseat passengers in the RV watching Sam and Tusker discuss their life with writing full of the snap, subtleties and playfulness of real life. It’s a real partnership and not a fake movie relationship. Some films have that gift of moving with an almost documentary authenticity, even as Macqueen films rural England with picturesque lighting.
Few films explore the theme of love on such mature terms. There’s a similarity here to last year’s “Ordinary Love,” the powerful drama starring Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville as a middle-aged couple faced with a cancer diagnosis. Sam and Tusker are so used to each other that small gestures are now the most endearing. The opening scene finds them holding each other in bed in simple happiness. Then gradually we see how their bond is facing the ultimate test. At a party thrown by friends Tusker would like to read a kind of farewell letter, but can’t, it’s up to Sam to do it. In private with relatives is when Sam admits he doubts his own usefulness, but when the issue of putting Tusker in a home comes up, his spirit returns and he insists he can take care of him. But what if Tusker doesn’t want to go on? What if he prefers to choose his own end to not face the full disease? Sam is faced with one of those great and challenging aspects about love: Giving someone the autonomy to make their own choices.
Firth and Tucci have played everything in every genre, so you almost feel their relief in being able to play two characters so human and controlled. They’re confused, flawed, loving and full of memories. Some scenes reveal truths with a shattering simplicity, like Sam sneaking into Tusker’s notebooks and realizing how a potential manuscript has descended into frustrated scribbles. Tucci’s Tusker is not frustrated or panicking about his situation. He has accepted it. Some films treat disease like the equivalent of the asteroids that threaten Earth in countless thrillers. “Supernova” features two adult characters dealing with this situation day by day. There are moments of sheer frustration and then scenes where we sense Sam might simply be diving into self-denial. But Tusker, who is the one afflicted, only subtly hints at the unavoidable fear he is experiencing.
Dramas like “Supernova” bring us back down to reality with elegant storytelling. It’s not seeking to rivet us or even provide escapism. Macqueen’s film is about the passage of time in life, and how we eventually reach those moments where everything changes. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what age you’re at, life has a way of throwing abrupt challenges. At its heart is also the theme of what a genuine partnership means. Many of us yearn for love, but are we aware of what it fully entails? Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci give us a couple who personify taking seriously all those famous words in those wedding vows we’ve all heard countless times. “Supernova” knows what it means to say you are willing to love someone through sickness and in health.
“Supernova” releases Jan. 29 in select cities and Feb. 16 on VOD.