Being sad something is gone just means it was great while it was there.
No terminal disease solely affects the dying patient because any death not brought naturally by father time is a tragedy everyone surrounding them must also bear. Love is too powerful an emotion to simply allow oneself to check out and avoid the pain of another—even if the latter wishes they would. That’s the rub. One side says, “If you truly love me you will let me go” while the other explains how, “It’s precisely because I love you that I cannot.” And the situation only exacerbates when the disease in question is dementia since it brings with it a point where love discovers it’s no longer enough. The victim will forget. Everything. The person you loved disappears and their body remains to remind you of that loss.
It’s thus a delicate subject with myriad outcomes depending on those forced to endure its fate. And if writer/director Harry Macqueen wasn’t already familiar with that truth before setting out to make Supernova courtesy of two personal connections, he surely was after spending three years researching dementia and spending time with those experiencing its nightmare first-hand. There are those who choose to battle through to the end while others weigh the options of assisted (or not) suicide. Some partners put their lives on-hold to spend every second they have left together before the last memory fades while others are refused that sacrifice so the person dying won’t feel as if their illness is killing them both. There’s no right answer when it comes to death. Only impossible questions.
Macqueen deftly weaves a few of these options into the story he puts on-screen through its conduits Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci). They’re two years past Tusker’s diagnosis and his decline has finally become noticeable to the point that believing they still have time proves itself a fallacy born from false hope. So they decide to take a trip together while faculties are more or less intact. Sam is a professional pianist/composer who hasn’t played since he chose to put his career on pause to help his husband, but Tusker won’t let him say no to a recital request that provides a destination for their journey. With a stop at Sam’s sister’s (Pippa Haywood‘s Lilly) home on the way, this holiday has the potential for rejuvenation.
What starts as two men making the best of their situation (Tusker hopes the quiet allows him to finish his latest novel), however, soon reveals the reality they’ve been desperate to ignore: this is actually a farewell tour. What’s unknown is therefore whether it signifies the end of Sam’s career, the end of Tusker’s identity, or both. Each wants it to be the one where their own path ends because that means the other maintains his chance to live. If Sam gives everything up to care for his love, Tusker might stay cognizant enough of who he is for a miracle to occur. And if Tusker fades out of existence, Sam might still have time to get back behind the piano and live for them both.
The result is unsurprisingly a beautiful mix of good and bad, joyous and tragic. We watch as the two men bicker with each other in their RV like the old married couple they are—quick-witted, temperamental, and always able to find an easy smile to diffuse whatever tension might arise. It seems as though things are normal and yet it only takes one misstep to realize they are anything but once an innocent stop at the market finds Sam returning to an empty car and no way of knowing which direction Tusker went. The inherent panic of that situation is difficult enough to bear, but it’s existence soon shows how many other things are faulty beneath the surface too. Their brave faces in response only delay the inevitable.
Macqueen draws everything into a collision course towards that point. Friends arrive to spill some secrets, paranoia causes a betrayal of trust, and the hard, damning truth of what Sam and Tusker face is laid bare. Whose love is thus more important? Who is allowed the agency to decide what the other must do when one man’s selfless desire looks like a selfish demand to the other? And we’re only privy to who these men are right now. The happier times of them creating art independently of one another before rejoining at home are alluded to as the distant memory neither can afford since living in a gradually disappearing past proves untenable. They’ve therefore done what needed to be done to refocus aspirations onto their love.
And in doing so they’ve allowed themselves to forfeit their lives in pursuit of the other’s happiness. Love unfortunately tends to cloud what that happiness is because it’s blind to the fact that the absence of who they were alone changes who they are together. It’s reductive to compare Sam’s retirement to Tusker’s mental decline, but on a certain level the absence of his career has altered his identity just the same. The difference is of course that Tusker’s degeneration is irreversible. Sam’s isn’t. Sam can’t give Tusker back what he lost, but Tusker can give Sam back what’s his. A tough choice is going to have to be made one way or the other, but pragmatism is hardly a foolproof argument when emotions are running so high.
The complexity of its existence, however, is a surefire way to get an audience engaged in an otherwise familiar story pitting lovers against fate. It helps too when you have actors of Firth’s and Tucci’s caliber bringing these heartbroken and defiant men to life in ways that expose their harrowing circumstance’s universal vulnerability. The way in which they can still smile and still surprise each other is pure magic because we know the tears are coming whether their characters like it or not. They are living in dementia’s purgatory wherein enough of Tusker remains to both pretend everything is okay and know nothing is. Love leads them onto a path promising great change, but it’s up to them how they’ll walk it. They do still control their destiny.
[1-3] Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth star in SUPERNOVA, written and directed by Harry Macqueen. Credit: Bleecker Street