Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci sleep well together in Supernova. They sleep the way that people who’ve become so accustomed to sharing space that they’d have trouble drifting off alone sleep, bodies flowing together like cursive script. Supernova, which was written and directed by Harry Macqueen, opens with a shot of their characters — Sam (Firth), a pianist, and Tusker (Tucci), a novelist — spooning, the morning sun highlighting bare flesh amid tangled linens, a tableau that radiates ease and intimacy. Macqueen returns to variations of it throughout his romantic elegy, as the men head to the Lake District in their old camper van, stopping by old haunts and paying visits to loved ones on their way to a recital that Sam’s been invited to give. Sam and Tusker have been together for 20 years, and that’s never more believable than when they’re in bed, getting ready for or awakening from slumber.
Twenty years is how long Firth and Tucci have been friends as well. They met on the set of a 2001 HBO movie called Conspiracy, and became closer when Tucci and his children moved to London. It was Tucci who suggested Firth for his co-star, and the two are not unconvincing as lovers, though their characters’ relationship exudes a deep warmth without offering up afterimages of any real heat. The actors are better with conjuring up a sense of a joint history than providing glimpses of the younger men that Sam and Tusker once were and sometimes reminisce about, but that suits the film fine. It’s not about passion, it’s about people in preemptive mourning for the life they shared — which, despite the pretense of normalcy they struggle to maintain, is effectively already gone. Their trip, which spans the length of this modest film, is a last hurrah, or a farewell, depending on whose perspective it’s considered from. Tusker has early-onset dementia that’s eroding his vocabulary, and that’s started to lead to frightening incidents in which he can’t remember where he is.
Whether Supernova would have been better with two gay leads is the kind of question that’s impossible to answer, because the melancholy pleasures of Supernova are entirely derived from getting to watch Firth and Tucci onscreen, two beloved presences who’ve only become more interesting as the years have given each a patina. As Tusker, Tucci is wry and urbane, the extrovert of the pair and the one who clearly steers the two in social situations. At a rest-stop café, he teases Sam about his musical fame when Sam is recognized by their server, and it’s clearly a habitual bit, a way of fondly embarrassing his less-effusive partner. As Sam, Firth is watchful and devoted and, beneath his protective caretaker routine, actually the more emotionally vulnerable of the two. While Sam has quietly resolved that he will spend the rest of his life taking care of this great love, Tusker’s own intentions are hinted at early on, when he confesses to Sam that he didn’t bother to bring his pills because “we both know that they’re not doing anything anyway.” The grand sacrifices each plans on the other’s behalf turn the film into a grimly autumnal variation on “The Gift of the Magi.”
Firth and Tucci have a tendency to outpace their material. The film’s produced by Andrew Haigh collaborator Tristan Goligher, and it evokes Haigh’s work — like a hybrid of Weekend and 45 Years — without replicating either his incredible deftness with two-hander scenes, or his ability to depict complex undercurrents in seemingly straightforward exchanges. Macqueen often feels like he’s aiming for a lighter touch than he ends up using, from the metaphor of the title, explained by Tusker at a family gathering, to Sam opening the movie by saying, “We’re not going back, you know,” which is far from subtle foreshadowing, even if he’s talking about turning around for something important they might have forgotten to pack. Supernova isn’t adapted from a play, but it sometimes feels like it was, not because of its talkiness or the tightness of its focus, but because it has a tendency to be a little blunter in practice than its understated initial tone might have you expect.
The performances are lovely, though, and they carry this minor-key movie through to its ambiguous end, especially in those sequences in which Sam and Tusker cuddle up together and we understand just how much their lives are intertwined, and just how unfathomable a future in which they’re apart really is to them. In one sequence, we see the lovers from above, side by side in that cozy camper-van bed, Tusker showing Sam how to find the Milky Way on the celestial map pinned above them. But what makes the scene, and what makes the movie, is the way that Sam caresses Tusker’s arm, a practiced motion that he knows will make his partner feel sleepy. Then they curl up together and fall asleep, and it’s as though they really could will time to stop right there, parked next to a serene lake they visited years ago. It’d be a nice moment to live in forever, galaxies turning overhead while they rest in the dark.
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