Low-key reverie belies explosive title

Sam (Colin Firth, left) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) stop for a roadside meal in Supernova. (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

By Richard Ades

It’s a bit misleading that writer-director Harry Macqueen’s new movie is called Supernova.

In astronomy, a supernova occurs when a star comes to an explosive end. True, the flick is about the impending demise of a star of sorts, as Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a successful novelist (and amateur astronomer) with an incurable illness. But Tusker suffers from premature dementia that promises to make him fade away, memory first, not erupt in a brilliant explosion.   

Essentially a road picture, Supernova is the low-key account of what is likely to be the final trip Tusker takes with his partner of 20 years, pianist Sam (Colin Firth). At Tusker’s request, they pile into their aged RV and set off for their favorite vacation spot, England’s beautiful Lake District. Also on the itinerary is a visit with members of Sam’s family and his first concert after an extended break from performing.  

All of this was planned by Tusker, as Sam would have preferred to stay home so he could better take care of his ailing friend. In fact, caring for Tusker is the only thing Sam wants to do, even if it means putting aside his own needs while Tusker wastes away. But Tusker’s pride and concern for his partner make that the scenario he fears the most.

This sets up arguments that continue throughout the film, ones that doubtless will resound with many aging couples, gay or straight. With Firth and Tucci expertly acting out their characters’ worries against the backdrop of Dick Pope’s cinematography and composer Keaton Henson’s tender score, the result is a melancholy reverie on love and mortality.

Unfortunately, the result is also a journey that is less emotionally involving than it could be. Considering all the talent involved, that’s even more puzzling than the title.

One possibility is that Macqueen doesn’t tell us enough about the characters’ past to appreciate just how much they’ve lost due to Tusker’s illness. “I want to be remembered for who I was and not for who I’m about to become,” Tusker says at one point. But we just don’t know who either he or Sam was except in the most general terms.

A related problem is that Macqueen’s dialogue is too present-oriented, and too plot-oriented—too “on the nose.” It zeroes in on Tusker and Sam’s current challenges so thoroughly that even pros like Tucci and Firth have trouble shading their lines with 20 years’ worth of intimacy.

Supernova does succeed in tackling a sad topic with tact and sensitivity. With a little more insight into the characters, it could have been truly stellar.   

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Supernova (rated R) can be viewed at select theaters (including Columbus’s AMC Easton Town Center 30 and AMC Dublin Village 18) and is available beginning Feb. 16 on digital VOD.