For all that it does very well, and that is a lot, Supernova’s excellence is perhaps best summed up in its casting. In putting Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in the same film as a middle-aged gay couple, Harry Macqueen drew instant, rapturous attention to his second feature, but these choices do more than just grab headlines. With no other name-brand actors to be seen outside of its central pairing, Firth and Tucci feel almost elevated within the world of Supernova, a monumental central force around which everything revolves, much like the dying star that gives the film its title. It makes for a film both reserved and intimate, with access to its characters almost a special privilege that we’ve been granted.
Firth and Tucci play Sam and Tusker, a pianist and an author who’ve been together so long that they can practically read each other’s minds. Tusker is in a decline after an early-onset dementia diagnosis, and so the pair have organised a road trip through the English countryside, visiting their old camping haunts in a cosy van, walking and talking and stargazing along the way.
From a purely story point of view, there’s not much in Supernova that will surprise or feel all that new, but its strength is derived from the central relationship, not the plot. Macqueen’s writing is gently superb, creating a deeply believable, lived-in relationship inside the film’s opening minutes, and earning some equally excellent, understated performances in turn. Firth’s role is the more openly emotional, as Sam’s fear of the future and a life without Tusker grows and grows, as does his sense of guilt for already mourning a man who is still alive, and his internalising of his pain for the sake of those around him is deeply moving. Tucci, meanwhile, is more composed, but he does a brilliant job of communicating Tusker’s mental deterioration through subtle physical cues as the illness shrinks his capacities.
The pair’s chemistry is marvellous, and in one standout scene, as Sam has to read out Tusker’s speech about himself after the words slip away from Tusker, the two almost become one. It’s a beautiful union that will reduce most viewers to blubbering wrecks. Yet, Macqueen is careful to not just fill his story with sadness. There are laughs and joy here too, from old in-jokes to family reunions at which wisdom can be passed between the generations. In just 90 minutes, Supernova conjures up an entire life, one which feels as if it has existed long before the camera started rolling, and will carry on in a tragically reduced form after the credits roll.
Sam and Tusker’s journey takes them through some beautiful landscapes, but Macqueen is less interested in the rugged British wilds than he is the smaller comforts of the trip. Enviable knitwear is everywhere, and Macqueen and his cast create a glowing warmth from small touches, moments of intimacy and love that feel unique to Sam and Tusker as a pair. Whether Supernova quite sticks the landing, I’m not sure, but the journey is the destination here, a quietly devastating trip through the ravages of an illness that takes your life away long before it actually kills you.