Colin Firth ('1917') and Stanley Tucci ('The Silence') are not only two of the most celebrated actors of our time, but they're also incredibly close friends. Their 20-year friendship makes the fact they've only just now shared a screen together seem preposterous, but it's also what makes their new film 'Supernova' so special.
Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci) have been together for 20 years, and are now travelling through the English countryside to the home of Sam's sister. They punctuate their RV trip with quippy conversations and musings about their respective careers (Sam is a concert pianist; Tusker is a novelist with a serious case of writer's block). Their trip, however, is a bittersweet one - Tusker is suffering from dementia, and in a series of increasingly painful scenes (which are rote in nature but no less true to the horrors of dementia), it's clear that his condition is deteriorating rapidly.
A film like 'Supernova' lives and dies by the bond between its lead stars. The pairing of Firth and Tucci goes beyond the easy route of throwing two beloved actors together and hoping it's enough to carry an entire film (see: 'Ammonite'): they have a palpable chemistry, comfort and familiarity with each other, which makes Sam and Tusker's relationship feel far more lived in than your average on-screen pairing. It also makes Tusker's choices regarding his own health that much more heartbreaking, as Sam's insistence to be included in his partner's decisions feels earned and not merely something the audience is being told to buy into. It should come as no surprise that both Firth and Tucci are the best they've been in years here, as well as their most cautious. 'Supernova's' restraint in its filmmaking mirrors that of the lead characters, both men intentionally holding back their most explosive emotions so as to not hurt the other. Firth's classic straight-faced gentleman schtick works perfectly here, as Sam's determination to care for Tusker presents as an iron-clad unwillingness to show the toll it's taking on him. Conversely, Tusker is intelligent enough to underplay his condition to not burden the love of his life.
The film faces the nightmare of mourning a loved one before they've even passed on, and for the most part, these ideas are explored with such tenderness and simplicity that it's impossible for audiences to find something in this film to distract themselves with. 'Supernova' is also stunningly shot by cinematographer Dick Pope ('Motherless Brooklyn'), capturing the beauty of the rolling English hills without veering into the grandiose, and shooting interior scenes with such softness that the film takes on the comfort level of a warm knitted sweater. It's a fitting feel for a film so sweet and patient.
'Supernova' has been hailed in some critic circles as a groundbreaking portrait of a gay relationship, and while I had originally decided to avoid this discourse in my review, I feel like it's worth at least briefly discussing. One of the most refreshing elements of the film is that never - not in a single moment - is Sam and Tusker's relationship viewed as anything other than a normal, loving relationship. Their sexuality is never even addressed as a plot point, and while it's great to see this in an A-list romance, it bothers me that films can still be applauded for such a bare minimum. Tusker's condition is in no way tied to his sexuality, and thus to have painted it as such would be flat out ridiculous, to say the least.
'Supernova' is an experience designed to make your heart swell before shattering it completely.
Unfortunately, the film's most emotional moments are bogged down by a script that has clearly pure intentions, but at times is so underwritten it borders on the cliché. Think of the first thing you'd expect someone with dementia to lament, and you can bet Tusker says it at least once in this film. It's a shame, since Tusker's career should have given way to dialogue far more poignant and original than what we get, particularly in the final act (his RV thoughts in the first half of this film are clear indicators of this), and as a result the film's main conflict gets glossed over a little bit too easily. Writer and director Harry Macqueen (who also stars in the film 'Provenance') is clearly a talented man and trusts Firth and Tucci to sell every moment of this film (they do), but having a little bit more for them to work with would have done wonders.
For a film riding its simplicity this hard, 'Supernova' is still a worthy and patient portrait of every couple's worst nightmare. It serves as a reminder to hold the ones you love tight, in an experience designed to make your heart swell before shattering it completely.