“Supernova is a tender, devastatingly gorgeous road trip, brooding with introspection”
At the end of a star’s life it collapses in on itself and, with one final hurrah, it explodes. The light it emits is so bright it can be seen across the universe and outshines galaxies. This eruption, marking the end of a star’s life cycle, is called a supernova. The darker side to this spectacular cosmic happening, however, is that a supernova can create black holes, from which nothing can escape.
Astronomy is Tusker’s (Stanley Tucci) favourite talking point. As an admirer of the stars, he gazes towards the darkness above to share musings about the details of the galaxy. Sam (Colin Firth), Tusker’s partner, listens intently and gazes in awe. Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and the road trip they embark on is a chance for them to spend quality time together. “Can you tell that it’s gotten worse?” Tusker asks. It is a loaded question. One answer is painful and the other is a lie, yet Sam puts on a brave face.
Supernova is a tender, devastatingly gorgeous road trip, brooding with introspection. There is even romanticism in the couple’s professions: Sam is a pianist and Tusker a writer. Lying in bed together, Sam practices piano melodies against Tusker’s arm, their private lullaby. Their warm, snug knitwear and the cosiness of their cramped campervan is a pillowing softness against the harsh reality of what this couple is experiencing. Sam has become Tusker’s carer and is willing to sacrifice everything for the man he holds in his arms, prepared to live out his gradual memory decline together. He tells him as such, and it is made evidently clear their time together is the most important thing they share.
Driving their campervan into the scenic sanctuary of the Lake District to escape the light pollution and stargaze peacefully, their back-and-forth is delightful. Sam warns Tusker they’re not going back if he’s forgotten something and Tusker teases Sam about his slow driving, all while Ruby (their adorable dog) lies between their seats. Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is a gentle hum from the Starman himself against their quiet conversation.
Though time is not kind to Sam and Tusker. Twisting and turning countryside roads take them deeper into their reality. Laying his head on Sam’s shoulder in front of a crackling fire, Tusker speaks with such conviction when he tells the love of his life: “I want to be remembered for who I was and not for who I’m about to become.” The frightening reality of his dementia creeps into his conscience. Driving across the country, stopping to visit friends and family on the way, Sam and Tusker are isolating themselves in a way that can only lead to a confrontation of the inevitable: their future. Sam’s openness to changing his lifestyle clashes with Tusker’s unmoving stubbornness as they attempt to prepare for the worst of Tucker’s memory deterioration.
Besides a cliche monologue of how human bodies are made out of parts of stars, the film’s emotional weight is expertly contrasted with moments in which Tusker finds humour in his struggle. Tucci and Firth’s performances are nothing short of phenomenal with the chemistry between the two. Instantly charming, the beloved actors effortlessly capture the twenty-year relationship between Sam and Tusker. Their open vulnerability is realised beneath the stars, actor-turned-director Harry Macqueen’s film is poignantly moving and lodges itself as a delicate unravelling of memory.
Viewing this through the telescope lens of queer narratives, the sincerity with which Supernova operates is resonant beyond the scenic landscape of the stunning Lake District. Tusker is consciously confronting the unspeakable: his depleting memory cannot be cured. He says himself: “You’re not supposed to mourn someone while they’re still alive.” No longer being able to write and concerned for his partner’s future, Tusker finds himself looking over his shoulder, seeing the space he will leave; an empty passenger seat, a spare chair at the dining table and a lover without his other half. Grieving his own passing while still alive, this morbid life-shortening of a gay man battling a horrendous, incurable experience is reminiscent of HIV/AIDS. Supernova moves away from the narrative of an older man’s queer time being cut short from HIV/AIDS and, instead, focuses on the fragility of queer time and the reconciliation of one’s own mortality. It is through the controlled guise of a British stiff-upper-lip that the exuded fondness is precious under the golden hues of autumnal skies.
The fragility of memory is a valuable thing. Supernova demonstrates such with Sam and Tusker’s destination constantly shifting. On their tear-jerking journey, they make a few pit-stops to meet old friends and awaken nostalgia, but all that matters is the two of them. The film captures the purity of their relationship. While Tusker is growing tired, Sam gazes over at him as if he is the only person in the room; Tusker shines so brightly but in his mind is a growing black hole; he is, himself, a supernova.
Dir: Harry Macqueen
Prod: Emily Morgan, Tristan Goligher
Cast: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci
Release Date: November 27, 2020
All images courtesy of StudioCanal