A lot of visual storytelling has conditioned us to the idea that big emotional moments happen in a music-soaring, climactic ways that dominate everything around them.
But the truth is that in real life, life-shattering life events often happen quietly in the limbo period between dawn and the day or when the world outside is silent and it is only you and a burst of emotion so intense that you wonder how no one could hear it or sense it.
In other words, big life-changing events are hidden inside small, seemingly inconsequential moments, something with which Supernova, written and directed with great empathy and humanity by Harry Macqueen, is intimately acquainted as it tells the story of Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), an older gay couple who is grappling with the slow motion finality of Tusker’s diagnosis of early onset dementia.
Beginning very much as it means to go on, the film starts quietly with the couple gently bickering as they drive through the English countryside in their trusty old campervan, their dog snuggly cuddled up in her customary spot in the back, their conversation peppered by affectionate banter, the kind that is evidence of a longstanding relationship where there is love but also exasperation.
In one true-to-life conversation, that feels exactly how loving couples who have been together a while would speak to each other, we come to understand how much these two men mean to each other but also how important this trip they are on, to see friends and family around the country, is to them.
Clinging to the idea that Tusker is doing well and may yet finish his long-awaited book, Sam simply refers to their trip as a holiday, a chance to see his sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood), brother-in-law Clive (Peter MacQueen) and niece Charlotte (Lily Marlin) and a bunch of other close friends, and to hold fast to the idea that their cosy, much-loved world is not about to breathe its last.
Sam, like any of us facing the death of a loved one, doesn’t want to admit that they are approaching the end of their grand love affair, that their home with each other, may soon be a thing of a much-mourned past.
Firth is achingly affecting in his role as Sam capturing every last drop of the agony that would greet the imminent loss of your beloved partner and the desperation to spend every possible moment with them.
Tusker, played to perfection by Tucci who encapsulates with fearful resignation and not a small amount of anger that his life would end this way, is far more sanguine about things, on the outside at least, his extrovert wit and charm still forceful enough to parry away the idea that things are as bad as they actually are.
But they are bad, very bad and getting worse, and while Tusker can still hold a conversation, he is acutely aware that who he is is slipping away fast and he is keen, to be remembered for the bon vivant writer he was and not the forgetful shell of a man he feels he’s becoming.
What stamps Supernova as truly special is how beautifully it captures the ticks and dynamics of a relationship between two men for whom it has become their entire sanctuary and world.
They might bicker and fuss but who in a long held relationship doesn’t do that? What comes through again and again in a way that warms the heart even as it darkens it with the sadness and loss to come is how much these men love each other.
Through all its quiet narrative meandering and meditative insightfulness, Supernova is at heart a big, grand, intensely passionate love story that finds expression in quiet gestures and in heartfelt words – Sam delivers Tusker’s speech at a dinner party held for close friends at Lilly and Clive’s and it is one of the gorgeously emotional things you have ever heard in any film – and in the sense that come what may Sam will be there for Tusker.
But does Tusker want to be around for Sam to the very bitter end?
That begins to emerge in a film which doesn’t pretend there is anything noble about losing who you are, and that while it is understandable you would want to care for your loved one in their final hour of need, is that what they need or want?
They are difficult and profoundly emotionally intense discussions to have, but Supernova takes the time to have them in ways that aren’t histrionic (though they are powerful) and which feel authentic and meaningful and which cut to the heart of what is being lost in a world where the assumption was, prior to Tusker’s diagnosis, that things would always be found, would be there amidst growing old and growing still closer together.
The reality that this won’t happen, that it can’t happen, is distressing for everyone involved, from Tusker watching himself dissolving away day by day, sentence by sentence to Sam fearing the inevitable departure of the man who is everything he has ever wanted and loved through to Lilly, Clive, Charlotte and their friends who gamely pretend during that last big dinner party that they can hold on to the present joys of life even as they resign themselves to its imminent demise.
There is so much aching beauty in Supernova, from its depiction of a devoted, mutually supportive romantic relationship to the unprepossessing gorgeousness of the countryside that means so much to Sam and Tusker but there is no much impending sadness and loss, the kind that is so poignantly expressed that you gasp at the overwhelming of emotion that slowly but powerfully creeps up on you as this nuanced but impacting film sagely and knowingly walk towards its final act.
As goodbyes go, Supernova is a doozy, a grand coming together of all the love and hope and delusion and sadness and regret and mourning that humanity is capable of in the form of two men and a relationship that means the very world to them and whose passing, when it comes and it is sadly coming soon, will be the end of so much with no real sense of how you move beyond it.
This is life as it all too often must be lived, and Supernova captures it all in quietly harrowing detail, offering up a heartfelt exploration of what it means to come to the end of very much loved and valued thing, of the loss of one’s self but all the attendant relationships that define it too, and how you can possibly put one foot in front of the other when there is no certain what will be there when you put that foot down.