Tusker is a respected novelist and Sam a recital pianist. They are a well-travelled, sophisticated couple who have been together for over twenty years. Taking to the road in an RV to travel across the north of England the couple establish their bond through humour and well-meaning bickering. The audience believes these men are beloved to each other. Tusker’s humour delights the staider Sam. Each moment between them is suffused with an intimacy that time has wrought and made strong.
The road trip appears to be at first a journey to Sam giving a recital, but it is much more. Along the way the couple stop at Sam’s family’s home where Tusker has organised a surprise party. Tusker is carefully setting up Sam for a life without him by ensuring he makes connections with others in their lives who can care for Sam once Tusker is gone. In a beautifully realised scene Tusker writes a speech which he is unable to read and it is Sam who takes on expressing Tusker’s heartfelt love and devotion to his friends, but especially his husband. Tucci’s expression of pride at his words mixed with a level of embarrassment for being unable to read them is just one of the perfect acting moments that the film has in plenitude. Indeed, the central performances of Tucci and Firth are what give the film gravity over sentimentality.
The subject of early onset dementia has been explored in films such as Julianne Moore’s best actress Oscar winning Still Alice. Unlike the aforementioned film Supernova doesn’t dwell as much on the diminishment of the person suffering from dementia. Tusker has moments where he loses words, or finds simple tasks like dressing difficult, yet he is still very much present mentally. For this reason Sam believes that they have more time to still be together as they were. It isn’t until he discovers Tusker’s writing box and the deterioration of his ability to harness the written word that he realises that there is an urgency to the diagnosis that he had been repressing in the hope of staying with the man he loves.
After so many excellent roles it would be difficult to call this a career-best for Firth, but it is certainly some of his finest work. In a lesser actor’s hands the emotional weight that Sam carries through his being could have been lost. Firth makes us believe the love between the couple is inviolable. Even when he finds something that shatters his world and breaks his heart he doesn’t overact and lead the script into a place of cliché. Tucci for his part is excellent as Tusker; a man who knows enough of himself to know what he is losing. It’s clear that he’s been the more social and outgoing partner in the relationship, but for all his extroversion he has relied on Sam to “sit there and hold up the universe.”
There is undeniable compassion for Sam and Tusker, but it is never overplayed to the point of schmaltz. Perhaps that restraint is built into the script, but it is mostly apparent through the measured performances of the leads. Intimacy is established through the everyday interactions; hands touching, the shared beds, the small jokes and needling. The smallest movements are grand gestures of love but never overplayed.
Writer/director Harry Macqueen has created an astoundingly mature work, especially given his relatively young age of only 36. In concert with the extraordinary cinematography of Dick Pope SUPERNOVA serves as a visual and aesthetic experience that gracefully captures the rural English countryside.
Despite the melancholy subject matter there is abundant warmth in SUPERNOVA and even as tragedy approaches the central message of the film is the enduring nature of love. Like the metaphor of the infinite universe that Macqueen employs, there is a never-ending nature in the capacity of the characters to belong to each other so completely. A heartbreaking yet love affirming film that delivers on every promise it sets up.