“A wise man once said, ‘We will not starve for lack of wonders,’” recalls Tusker (Stanley Tucci) in Supernova. “But from lack of wonder.”
Tusker finds himself gazing at the stars, or simply staring at maps of the stars, in Supernova. A novelist, he’s a romantic full of curiosity. However, for a writer, there’s no fate worse than losing one’s ability to express wonder through words.
This fate befalls Tusker in Supernova’s beautifully understated tragedy. Tucci gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the intelligent bon vivant who confronts his future when faced with dementia. Tusker savours the world around him as he and he long-time partner Sam (Colin Firth) take one last holiday. The ride through the English countryside in their ramshackle motorhome lets Tusker savour the sights, sounds, tastes, and memories that will soon elude his grasp. Just watch Tucci as Tusker sips a fine wine, smells the fresh air, or gazes upon his lover’s face. He’s mining a catalogue of adjectives, metaphors, similes, and euphemisms that best express the passion he recognizes within him. This is a wonderful film about savouring life and love in the moment.
Meanwhile, Sam, a pianist, holds onto their relationship like a musician accentuating a fermata. As with a pianist extending the final note of a concerto, Sam knows that the song has to end. This realisation makes Supernova so poignantly and subtly devastating. Where one partner sees a finale, another finds awe when faced with the dark uncertainty that follows the final note.
Director/writer Harry Macqueen (Hinterland) smartly trusts his actors’ abilities to tell this story with the sensitivity and nuance it deserves. The film introduces Tusker’s illness imperceptibly. As the men drive along the countryside, he insists he knows the route and resists Sam’s suggestion to use the GPS. Sam, in the driver’s seat, looks lovingly and teasingly at his partner. Tusker’s refusal to use the annoying mechanical narration of the navigator speaks mostly to his characterization as a Luddite. He’s one of those people who, say, would never read a book on a tablet. However, his insistence on his sense of direction becomes painfully sad when, moments later, Sam loses him in a parking lot. This brilliant man holds onto his mental cognition, acknowledging that once he lets machines speak for him, he might as well be dead.
The King’s Speech
Tusker’s disappearance betrays just how well he can hide his deteriorating state. As the men visit friends and tour old haunts, one would hardly know that his mind is slipping away. However, Sam increasingly recognizes the signs. The weight of their years together—and their commitment to one another—plays out on the actors’ faces. As their friends gather for a celebration that reveals itself a farewell, Supernova extraordinarily captures the love and devotion between the men as they mutually recognize their fates before an audience of friends.
Tusker prepared a speech the event, but, tragically he can’t understand the words he committed to paper earlier that day. Dutifully proving his commitment to “in sickness and in health,” Sam reads the speech for him. As Firth eloquently honours Tusker’s words—most of which pay tribute to Sam—his voice cracks with fits that betray his composure. Tusker, meanwhile, sits at his side, recognizing some lines from his speech, but saying far more through the whirl of relief, embarrassment, and gratitude he wears on his face. A harder conversation must come when Tusker regains his command for language.
Ground-breaking portrait of a queer couple
In the fashion of films like Away from Her or Still Alice, Supernova witnesses a relationship that sees one party’s role transition to that of a caregiver. Yet Tusker resists aid in the way that Fiona and Alice do not before they lose themselves to Alzheimer’s. His choice (not to be revealed here) puts Sam’s love to the ultimate test with the question it poses.
Macqueen boldly asks this question about unfailing love with a story about two men. Supernova feels groundbreaking in its portrayal of queer relationships because Sam and Tusker’s sexuality is not the object of study. It’s simply a discernible trait in their relationship. Supernova gives a narrative normally afforded to heterosexual couples in cinema and finds a sobering fact: all aging couples inevitably faces similar heartaches.
Supernova also proves valuable within the context of performance and representation. Firth and Tucci, both heterosexual actors, avoid “playing gay” and offer a master class in tackling roles responsibly. (Both actors have succeeded in queer roles before in films like A Single Man and The Devil Wears Prada, respectively.) What distinguishes their work from, say, James Corden in The Prom is their dedication to honouring Sam and Tusker as fully realised people. There are no clichés or stereotypes. Their sexuality isn’t a character tic or an affection, but rather something that informs the roles from the inside out. These are rich and rewarding performances.
Supernova is a perfectly played two-hander featuring Tucci and Firth in some of the best work. The two veteran actors show no signs of starving for wonders. To watch them together is one of the year’s true delights. Supernova makes the heart swoon before breaking it ever so delicately.
Supernova opens in select theatres Feb. 12 with a virtual release via Inside Out on Feb 16 and at TIFF Lightbox Feb. 18.