Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) take one last trip in Harry Macquen’s Supernova. Bleecker Street hide caption
When you watch Supernova – Harry Macqueen’s lightweight dialogue and the emotional story of a gay couple grappling with the fact that one of them suffers from early-onset dementia – you’ll keep impressed by the amount of confidence the film puts in his two main roles.
Which makes sense in view of the two leading actors in question: Colin Firth as the British concert pianist Sam and Stanley Tucci as the American writer Tusker. The latter is the one who is losing himself and who seems much more confident of the two.
In an early, wordless scene, Tusker wanders away from the motor home in which the two are touring the British Lake District. A concerned Sam drives down a narrow country road until he spots Tusker. When he gets out to pick him up, Macqueen’s camera stays in the motorhome and looks at them through the windshield. Sam approaches Tusker and assures a worried driver that everything is fine. (Everything is wrong). Tusker sees Sam and collapses; they hug.
A smaller movie would bring us to them amid that embrace amid tears and relief and whispered reassurances. But Macqueen – an actor himself and a good one, a fact that doesn’t seem unimportant here – knows we don’t need her. Tucci and Firth can sell this moment in all of its panicked intimacy, just by setting their shoulders and the way their bodies collapse into each other.
Supernova is characterized by this type of knowing reluctance to describe the difference between feeling (a true, deserved feeling) and sentimentality (the cheap, manipulative attempt to pull our hearts). Scene by scene, when the two men visit friends and family one last time, we see the more conspicuous, more maudlin film in which supernova can develop, but never develop and which only hovers at the edges. It is only in its closing moments, foretold by a dramatic conflict of the kind required by stories like this, that the film becomes the acting showcase “Here’s One for the Oscar Role” that always threatened it but got the title carefully considered, and it’s hard to give these two actors a chance to delve into.
As Sam, Firth is soulful and circumspect at the same time, after burying fears about his impending loss and worry that he will not be able to meet the demands of care so as not to worry his partner. We’ve seen Firth do the British stiff upper lip thing countless times and it’s good to see him in a role that allows that lip to shake a bit.
Tucci’s role is more demanding, as it invites big, acting decisions so quickly in order to register his condition. But he cleverly plays Tusker off as a man who has the emotional intelligence to conceal the true extent of his dementia, at least for the time being. When he’s fighting for the right word, it’s never obvious – Tucci passes it on like a momentary glitch that he doesn’t have to worry about.
That Supernova focuses on the lives of two 60-year-old gay men is noteworthy for several reasons. One novelty: Stories of gay men of a certain age studying non-AIDS mortality remain relatively rare. Second, was the couple at the center of the story a heterosexual, the central tension – can one partner take care of another? – would have been burdened with hoarse notions about traditional gender roles. By focusing on a same-sex couple, we can forego preconceived, abstract notions of masculinity and femininity, so that we can instead focus on the changing power dynamics between these two specific individuals.
Firth and Tucci are long-time friends in real life, and they were originally put in the opposite role they ended up playing in the film. Once you’ve watched Supernova it will be difficult to get a grip on that fact as the actors seem so well suited to their respective characters. They probably would have proven equally capable of capturing the intimacy Sam and Tusker share, but it’s hard to imagine that they would have found the little, individual grace tones they make here – wordless moments that are both an unobtrusive delight to express what they are and have the devastating knowledge that it will soon be gone forever.