The rate of shocking deaths and terminal illnesses in recent movies has been staggering lately, what with movies such as “No Man’s Land,” “The Marksman,” “Penguin Bloom,” “Pieces of a Woman,” “Our Friend” and this week’s “The Dig” featuring storylines heavy on the tragedy and light on the … lightness. And the trend continues in the unassuming yet deeply affecting “Supernova,” with the superb duo of Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth clicking with such comfortable ease it takes all of about 30 seconds to believe these 60ish partners have been together for so long they can finish each other’s sentences, often read each other’s thoughts and anticipate each other’s highs and lows.
Alas, the lowest of lows is beginning to loom on the horizon, and there’s nothing they can do about it other than to embrace every moment and rage against the dying of the light until any such efforts will be painfully futile.
With writer-director Harry Macqueen’s camera providing an intimate, docudrama P.O.V. and the Lake District scenery in northern England providing picturesque background settings, we follow Tusker (Tucci) and Sam (Firth) as they drive at a leisurely pace in a modest but comfortable motorhome, their faithful dog curled up in the back and plenty of snappy banter in the front. Tusker is a novelist of some renown with a playful wit and a deadpan personality, while Sam is a successful concert pianist with a reserved and more serious demeanor. Their fights are usually about something other than the squabble at hand, they have a shorthand and frames of reference all their own, and at the end of the night they fall asleep in each other’s arms.
In other words, they’re a couple. Partners for life.
“We’re not going back,” Sam says to Tusker at the outset of the journey, and though he’s ostensibly talking about not turning around to retrieve any forgotten items, it soon becomes clear this is meant in the larger sense as well, because Tusker has early onset dementia and is already beginning to experience symptoms, and this will be their last major trip together, so they best make the most of it.
This is the story of “Supernova,” and though we meet some family members along the way and there’s the occasional gentle road-movie comedic interlude, this could well have been a two-character stage play. Sam and Tusker reminisce about their early years and share nights under the stars — and eventually get into raging arguments about Tusker’s fate. Sam is outraged Tusker has considered ending his life and is now saying he doesn’t want Sam around to see him become a shell of himself; Tusker says that isn’t Sam’s call to make, and he doesn’t want Sam’s last memories of their time together to be memories of Tusker unable to even recognize Sam. You’re not supposed to mourn somebody when they are still alive, he says to Sam.
Neither man is right; neither man is wrong. Neither man can do anything to ward off the inevitable. All they can do for now is soak in every last moment they have together, and oh do we wish for them to have as many of those moments as they possibly can.