I want to be remembered for who I was, not who I’m about to become.
In Supernova, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), partners for twenty years, travel across England, reuniting with friends and family on their journey. Two years prior, Tusker was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and in recent months his condition has deteriorated further. Each is trying to prepare the other for the future, albeit with two very different visions of that future in mind: Sam is trying to reassure Tusker that the pair will face things together, but Tusker is trying to prepare Sam for life as a widower. It’s not so much a film about what you’ll do for someone you love as it is what you won’t let them do to themselves: not the problem they’re facing together but the ones they’re so desperately trying to face alone, to keep private, to shield the other from as long as they’re able.
Neither is strictly honest with the other, and a lot of the film is about the things left unsaid – things they can’t quite bring themselves to admit, fears they’ll discuss with someone else but not each other, goodbyes they don’t want to make. So much of their communication has become strained and second-hand; delivered as a speech rather than in conversation, a secret recording found before its time and played in a private moment. It’s not unlike a fading star – words reaching someone too late the same way the light from a star takes years to arrive – and in a sense, that’s almost the real tragedy of it all: after years as best friends and lovers, walls are starting to spring up, imposing a distance between them. It’s not just a case of mourning someone before they’re gone, but losing them – or rather, losing what you were together – before they’ve left. There’s a certain truth to that, how you can be least open with the people closest to you, and it makes the moments where they do talk to each other properly – not just frustrated but shouting, not just sad but weeping, the careful facades finally falling to pieces – all the more heartbreaking.
Supernova goes to great lengths to foreground Firth and Tucci; they inhabit their roles with the weight of years behind them, gesturing at a lifetime of familiar habits and now-comfortable bickering. They’ve excellent chemistry together, and the film is well-balanced between them; they’re the sort of performances that’d reward repeat viewings, focusing more closely on a different lead each time. (In a sense, Firth and Tucci play two quite similar characters, offering performances underscored by the same notes – both a portrait of a life unravelling – but that serves only to emphasise the different subtleties and nuances each bring.) Neither are playing against type, particularly – arguably that’s part of what makes their characters feel so familiar and lived-in, because in a way they are – but Supernova is still comfortably among their best work.
Harry Macqueen’s direction is simple and understated, all the better to realise his admirably restrained script. There’s a willingness throughout to let those implied decades stand on their own terms – Sam insists he should help Tusker because “it’s his turn”, a simple, even throwaway line that carries so much without the need for more detailed exposition. Supernova offers a glimpse into a life, a close focus on a relationship as it comes to an end, but quite gracefully conveys an understanding of what that relationship was beyond what we see here. That grace is characteristic of how Macqueen approaches Supernova more broadly, too – there’s a careful delicacy to it all, a well-attuned sense of how best to tell this story. It’s never mawkish or overly sentimental; instead, Supernova is quiet in its emotional moments, and all the more affecting for it.
In the end, the film isn’t about raging against the dying of the light – again, like a supernova, what little light is left arrives long after a terminal diagnosis – but about turning resignation into acceptance. There’s something quite striking about the Supernova’s closing moments, and the note of relative ambiguity it ends on; it’s not quite clear what the pair said to each other in their (presumed) last conversation, or whether its final scene is perhaps metaphorical rather than strictly literal. Either way, the pair are ultimately afforded a certain privacy together – it’s not a happy ending, exactly, but it’s a reunion of sorts, and in a way that’s the next best thing.