The sophomore feature film from actor/filmmaker Harry Macqueen (Hinterland), Supernova is a deeply felt, beautifully acted drama about a long-married couple facing the sort of tough end-of-life decisions that threaten to break even the strongest of bonds. Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci star as Sam and Tusker (respectively), a couple so familiar with each other that hardly a word needs exchanging to know what the other is thinking. They banter in that way only those who know each other deeply well really can, and their ease together is both a blessing and a curse, knowing as they do how to push each other’s buttons and get under the other’s skin.
When we meet them, the couple is barreling down a country highway in their RV, Sam at the helm as Tusker sits silently in the passenger seat adhering to those wise words to not say anything at all if one has nothing nice to say. He’d prefer Sam drive faster; Sam would prefer they use the automated GPS rather than Tusker’s old-fashioned paper maps. The journey they’re on isn’t terribly adventurous, but it is meaningful, as they stop to camp at a site they’ve visited before and pop in to see Sam’s sister and her family. For every seemingly normal moment spent star-gazing next to a campfire or going for long walks in the rolling hills, there’s the undeniable reality that Tusker’s health is deteriorating, his early-onset dementia making itself known in ever more troubling ways as this otherwise healthy, sharp man forgets the word for “triangle.”
Sam is a concert pianist, and Tusker has helped arrange a show for him after a long absence from the stage; Tusker is a writer who’s supposed to be working on a new book but he refuses to show Sam any of the pages he has in progress. Knowing that their time together is changing every day as Tusker’s condition worsens, they carve time out of their days on the road to record short audio interviews, conversations that allow each of them to both document their current state of mind and inquire with the other about their well-being. Thanks to the film’s conversational script and Firth and Tucci’s inherent comfort with each other (the two have been friends for decades), Supernova has the lived-in feeling of the kind of cozy cottage Sam and Tusker might retreat to for a quiet, creative weekend. There is a deep love between not only these two men but their inner circle, too; a dinner party at Lilly’s home is filled with warmth and good cheer, even as Tusker struggles to get through a speech he’s prepared to honor Sam.
Where the film stumbles is in its attempt to bring a sense of originality to well-tread themes of long-term love facing a challenge and the rough edges that rise to the surface as the veneer of civility fades away. Even in the film’s most poignant moments, the emotion never seems to go far beyond what’s on screen. Firth and Tucci are captivating actors in whatever roles they choose, and their work here convinces us that these two men are deeply connected. But they’re less able to convey the toll Tusker’s illness (and his choices in how to deal with it…or not) takes on each of them and their relationship. For all that’s expressed in even the quiet moments, the pendulum never seems to swing the other way, tempers exploding or anger and bitterness bubbling to the surface. And when Sam does discover just how Tusker has decided to manage his diagnosis, there’s always a desire for something more in their exchanges on how to move forward together. Moments that should feel significant instead feel trite; those that should feel transcendent fall short.
That’s not to say that Supernova isn’t worth seeking out; it is. It’s an exceptional journey into the endurance of long-term love in even the most harrowing circumstances, and Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci deliver tender, heartfelt performances that make us fall in love with what Sam and Tucker share. Other films may do a better job at truly unearthing the depths of such a relationship, but Supernova offers more than enough to impress.
Supernova opens in select theaters in Chicago on Friday, January 29. Please follow CDC and official guidelines for safely attending indoor screenings.
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