By Peg Aloi
In Supernova, nuance rules: Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth bring a naturalistic grace to the voice and energy of their aging characters
This intimate, quiet little film comes very close to being what some critics would call a chamber piece: minimal characters, a focused plot arc, few locations, and a simple visual palette. But two elements in Supernova give the movie a larger-than-life quality: the metaphorical overlay of stargazing (as suggested by the title) and a memorable drive through the heart-stopping vistas of England’s Lake District.
Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and Sam (Colin Firth), who’ve been a couple for 20 years, embark on a journey through the English countryside in an old campervan. Initially, the film’s mood mingles light and somber. Following the opening titles, we see a night sky full of stars, as a tensive piano melody is played while one star grows brighter and then winks out. The narrative’s message is made crystal clear. Throughout history, artists, scientists, astrologers, religious believers — from Shakespeare to Carl Sagan and Joni Mitchell — have linked (symbolically and fancifully) human destiny to the cosmos. Our very bodies, some have argued, are made of stardust. Tusker, a novelist, enjoys stargazing and teaches Sam tricks to locate the constellations. Sam’s a concert pianist who’s about to give his first concert in years. Their trip will bring them near the concert venue, after they stop at Sam’s childhood home to visit his family.
On the way, during a quick stop for petrol and snacks, Sam panics when Tusker gets lost while taking their dog Ruby for a walk. We learn that Tusker’s been diagnosed with a progressive form of dementia. Sam’s determination to care for him takes the form of a persistent gentleness propelled by a barely concealed fear that Tusker’s time is running out. A dinner party overwhelms Tusker; he struggles to find words and recall names. Still, in the face of his deterioration, the writer remains calm, doing his best to find the humor in the situation. But we discover that Tusker has given a great deal of thought to his dimming future. Sam discovers some things he wasn’t meant to, the floodgates open, and Sam’s circumspect demeanor cracks.
It’s hard to imagine better actors to play these characters. Their chemistry is undeniable. Their banter in the van feels a bit forced at first, but it soon becomes obvious it is a way they have been able to tiptoe around important issues for months. Their comfort with one another, and their deep devotion, comes through in gestures, half smiles, hugs. They even dress alike, in well-worn but well-fitting jeans and cozy sweaters. At one point it is suggested that they frequently wear each others’ clothing. It’s a tiny but touchingly intimate detail in this high stakes story of two men who are at a crossroads in their lives, making choices about an uncertain future.
I found myself thinking about a film with a very similar setup and plot line, The Leisure Seeker, a disastrous film with a self-consciously silly screenplay, starring two performers at the top of their game, Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland. They also had chemistry on screen. But the film stretched their considerable gifts much too far: tossing in overblown micro-plots about Ernest Hemingway, forcing Mirren to adopt an utterly unconvincing Southern accent, and making Sutherland swerve from gruff to kittenish in an instant. Here nuance rules: Tucci and Firth bring a naturalistic grace to the voice and energy of these two men. Their words and actions feel organic and plausible. Firth hasn’t been this good since his subtle, mesmerizing performance in A Single Man (I was never a fan of the film that won him an Oscar, the trite and heavy-handed The King’s Speech). Tucci’s warmth and wit shine here, and even as an American ex-pat he makes Tusker fit comfortably into the story’s English setting. Screenwriter and director Harry Macqueen (who also plays a small role) also chose well by setting this story in gorgeous old houses in the Lake District during late October. Photographed by the legendary Dick Pope (Mike Leigh’s long-time DP), the misty mountains and waters exude an otherworldly essence, the very air laden with a haunting temporality. This film’s natural beauty enhances Tusker and Sam’s melancholy journey, yet it also lends their relationship an earthy immediacy, even amid the talk of stars.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.