Synopsis: Following a life-changing diagnosis, Sam and Tusker travel across England in their old camper van visiting friends, family and places from their twenty-year relationship until secret plans test their love like never before.
Stars: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, James Dreyfus, Pippa Haywood, Sarah Woodward
Director: Harry Macqueen
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: For too long, gay and transgender people were shown as negative stereotypes in film and television, relegated to the loveless best friend, the cruel queen, and worst of all, the ultra femme perverted killer that must be stopped by a masculine cop in a spray of bullets. That’s just the way it was until movies on the fringe like the original production of The Boys in the Band in 1970 and dramas such as 1989’s Longtime Companion began to put the spotlight centrally on gay people as the stars of their own stories. (Obviously, I’m leaving out numerous landmark pieces across all walks of media – barriers were broken down through a massive number of channels in the years between and since.) Still, it took longer than necessary for the narrative to move from “dying AIDS patient” to legitimate, long-life-living contributing member of society.
Like many members of the LGBTQ+ community, I welcome the arrival of any major work that has the potential to reach a great number of people which shows the normalcy of a healthy same-sex relationship. I’m not one of those that stand in staunch opposition to straight actors playing gay. As long as the actor approaches it with their full heart and open mind it’s perfectly fine in my book. Thankfully, the time of it being an “big deal” for heterosexual actors to play gay seems to have passed and we’re blessedly long removed from the Brokeback Mountain days of nervously tittering when Heath Ledger makes the moves on Jake Gyllenhaal. Now, media can show that gay people lead lives just as boring and unfulfilled as straight people. Y’know…just like real life.
The arrival of the new drama Supernova feels like another minor milestone in the evolution of gay cinema…because it reveals that even handsomely made dramas that attract A-list talent and feature impeccable cinematography can be as stiflingly inert and problematic as their straight counterparts. Convincingly cast, brilliantly filmed by Oscar-nominee Dick Pope (Bernie), scored by Keaton Henson like a glowing lullaby you can hold in your hands, it’s a marvelous little film to look at but also falls prey to its own ambition. It’s just it’s not that interesting or narratively intriguing if you strip all of the strong flourishes away. So much effort has been spent to present the film as a precious slice of life journey for two lovers on a final trip together that writer/director Harry Macqueen appears to have forgotten that there has to be more to a script than a beginning and an ending.
Traveling through the English countryside on their way to their final destination within the gorgeous Lake District, concert pianist Sam (Colin Firth, 1917) and his partner of twenty years, Tusker (Stanley Tucci, The Witches) seem to already know this is likely the last time they’ll be able to be alone together. Diagnosed with early dementia, author Tusker has found the disease is rapidly reducing his quality of life and wants to spend his remaining days with friends, his dog, and the love of his life. Helping Sam begrudgingly plan this concert is his way of ensuring life will go on after he’s gone, a last bit of control he can hold on to that no one can take away from him. Sam recognizes this and realizes the easiest thing to do is to let Tusker have his way and dutifully becomes driver, caregiver, and navigator for their trek through nature’s beauty toward an unknown future.
Viewers join this trip as it’s nearing the end, just about the time that Sam and Tusker are due to arrive at the villa of Sam’s sister where a gathering of friends is set to celebrate a birthday of a man and the life of a friend. It’s the one stretch of Supernova’s short running time where Firth and Tucci aren’t alone together on the road or in a room somewhere hashing out their fears and working through some painful realizations. The scenes at the villa play like a movie, most of the passages between Tucci and Sam come off feeling like filmed bits of stage business. I’d pay to see the actors perform this play but watching it unfold onscreen makes for treacly viewing. Luckily, director Macqueen has nabbed himself two of the finest actors working today to star in his film, both experts at commanding the screen without hogging the spotlight. That’s how the interplay between the celebrated actors mostly comes across feeling so naturalistic; they speak to each other and interact as if they’ve indeed been together daily for two decades.
So how is it that Supernova comes up short? Well, it’s that whole “not about the destination, it’s the journey” saying people always talk about. Pretty early on in the film we know where things are headed and once the cards are on the table the screenplay seems to stall out, becoming quietly introspective when I yearned for it to get somehow, someway louder. No amount of star quality can turn that dial and it’s because the stages of grief often shown in movies (and that I wanted) have already long passed for these men. In essence then, apart from the villa diversion and a nicely crafted scene between Tusker and Sam’s niece, the entirety of Supernova is focused on how life is like in the acceptance phase of someone facing death.
In several interviews recently Tucci revealed that he and Firth switched parts shortly after Tucci showed the script to Firth as a potential project for them to work on together. Originally Firth’s idea to play the pianist instead of the dying author, I think the change-up was a smart one that ultimately helps the film get to a higher level because Tusker’s resolute feelings toward his prognosis feels like the stiff-upper-lip British way of going about things. Having Firth trying his hand at a warmer, far more emotional character does do wonders for him and, gay character or not, will have his female fans swooning even harder. While Tucci is the one without an Oscar, his consistently strong work throughout his career and a ramping up of higher profile roles as of late feels like the beginning of a crescendo that will lead to a top award soon…but not yet.
I wanted to like this one more than I did and I’m not even one of the early admirers of the trailer who were caught tweeting how it gave them “all the feels” while they pondered who Tucci was going to knock out of the Best Supporting Actor list of potential nominees. I don’t think that’s going to happen for Tucci this year, not because he’s not a strong presence in the film but because the film isn’t strong enough to support his presence. The same could be said for Firth but I think Tucci outshines him a bit, but only by a bit, mind you. Supernova may not be the out of this world emotional experience I was hoping for but it does wonders for strong representation of a normal couple (that happen to be gay) going through one of life’s unfortunate setbacks.