A supernova, to put it simply, is an explosion; an incredibly bright, incredibly powerful explosion. Massive stars burn lots of fuel at their centers, creating heat that generates pressure, but once that pressure is gone, the star collapses. In the context of Harry Macqueen’s Supernova, Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is unquestionably the type of man who would like to go out with a fantastic bang, and Sam (Colin Firth) has nothing to do but fold inwards once the love that defines his existence leaves him alone in the dark.
We meet the couple at the beginning of their road trip holiday, bickering lovingly as they drive their camper van along the winding roads of the English countryside. They know exactly how to push each other’s buttons without scarring each other, as most life-long couples do. Sam is a pianist, rusty, but talented, and Tusker is an author in the midst of writing a new book. They’re on the way to visit family friends, see Sam perform in concert, and also say goodbye.
Tusker has dementia, a particularly cruel thing in that it attacks a person’s mind and takes from their sense of self, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him: he’s unerringly sharp, witty, and has a strong presence next to his much quieter husband. Of course, underneath, there’s a lot going on. Sam, although not the caregiver in their relationship yet, spends a lot of time preparing for their future and looking towards the harder days to come. When he hears Tusker make a snide remark or recognizes his ability to always say the right thing when it counts, it just serves as a reminder of how much about him there is to love, and thus, how much there is to lose. Tusker prefers to live in the now and to look back on the pair’s history instead of getting caught up on his future. Both men are trying to protect one another from Tusker’s dementia, but walk on eggshells trying to do so.
Firth and Tucci’s dynamic is lived-in and their chemistry works straight off the bat. They look and feel like a couple who have been together for decades: unassuming yet totally in tune with each other. The first third of the film is dialogue-heavy, leaving Macqueen with the difficult job of writing in a way that informs us but also doesn’t break the illusion of these men having known and cherished each other for decades; lucky for us, the writer-director succeeds with the only caveat being context is on a slow drip.
Every facet of Supernova is comfortable and tactile. Cold British nights are spent under fuzzy jumpers and blankets in the van, and hearts are warmed with red wine, hot food, and chats with friends by their fireplace. Dick Pope’s cinematography is decidedly autumnal and cozy, utilizing blue shades of moonlight and earthy tones that perfectly match the snug costuming. When Sam and Tusker hold each other, it makes all the sense in the world because Supernova is the kind of tender project that nestles up to its viewer and sinks beneath the skin in a way a more artificial outing couldn’t.
As Tusker’s dementia progresses and he realizes he is soon going to become a “burden”, his desire to retain what makes him him only grows. While Sam is willing to face whatever comes their way — despite the prospects being terrifying — Tusker wants to be remembered for his best days, not his worst. The central conflict comes in this difficult scenario, where one person in the relationship is desperate to keep trying while the other doesn’t want either of them to hurt any longer. It’s in Sam and Tusker’s heartfelt and shielding dynamic that Supernova becomes a surprising tearjerker. It so deftly lets you into their world and their immense love that there are little traces of this work until we’re introduced to the beginning of their end — the star begins to collapse.
Firth’s vulnerable performance is among the English star’s best work. There’s a quiet panic to Sam that is expressed mostly through tension in his face and tired, longing eyes. When Sam does communicate his fears, he quickly chokes up, and you can hear the verge of a breakdown in Firth’s voice and see it in his body language. Tucci is equally impressive, often making Tusker seem like the sun in every room he’s in — so warm everybody starts gravitating towards him to catch the last glimpse of a great man. By the later stages of the running time, it’s easy to understand the characters’ affection for each other and why the loss of Tusker is going to be so world-changing; we’re constantly reminded of it, as is Sam. Supernova is unfair in that sense like Tusker’s disease is. This is not an angry film, though, even as it deals with such a frustrating subject matter.
Supernova is top-heavy, with most of its beats and revelations packed in towards the end, but the path to them is worthwhile. Getting lost in its soft fabrics, stylish Tucci-flexing, and the fur of Firth’s beard will be a welcome retreat for many after a year where peace and contemplation seem locked away behind inaccessible doors.