By Steve Erickson
British director Harry Macqueen’s “Supernova” lights a very long fuse. A gay couple, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), take a road trip through England while Tusker’s dementia is still fairly manageable.
At the start of “Supernova,” Tusker has been living with dementia for two years. Sam is a composer and pianist preparing a major concert. He has put his music career on pause to take care of Tusker. Their road trip is intended as a goodbye to family and friends while Tusker’s mind is still relatively coherent. As they travel, they reconnect with their past, while being confronted with the fact that their future consists of Tusker’s increasing deterioration.
The film is determined to show us how serious its intent is: The cinematography is desaturated, the color scheme autumnal. In its interiors, real people would probably turn on more lights. Macqueen chooses his close-ups and two-shots with great care. At worst, it feels like he’s engaging in a watered-down version of a festival cinema aesthetic; at best, he conjures up a pained, melancholy ache.
But when “Supernova” arrives on a plot twist two-thirds of the way through, it becomes apparent that the film’s true subject is emotional repression and that’s what happens when it becomes untenable. In the first scene, Sam and Tusker are shown naked in bed together. In the second, they are bickering on the road. This combination suggests what the film’s aiming for, and some of what holds it back. The sheets are carefully arranged to cover the actors’ genitalia, preserving the obligatory sexlessness of “mainstream” LGBTQ cinema. Their relationship is introduced by suggesting both love and tension.
The tone of “Supernova” is hushed. For its first two thirds, Sam and Tusker just try to live day by day, putting off a confrontation with the enormity of their problems. But they constantly butt heads. While this starts to seem like Macqueen’s method of establishing their bona fides as a couple, it soon reveals itself as the strain of living with an incurable, slowly progressing disease. The English reputation for emotional reticence is played out here, breaking through once in a startlingly physical struggle.
Tucci and Firth are long-time friends. Both have portrayed gay characters several times before, but “Supernova” was made at a time when the legitimacy of such casting has been widely questioned — much more so than when Firth played a gay professor in Tom Ford’s 2009 “A Single Man.” Macqueen did not initially write his script with a gay couple in mind, and apart from one reference to Britain’s anti-gay Section 28 law, the film could’ve had been cast with a heterosexual couple without making any real changes. While an air of doom hangs over its characters, the tragic fate facing Tusker has nothing to do with his sexuality. “Supernova” takes place in a world where being gay is never an issue, rather than turning homophobia or the closet into lazy plot devices.
But when Tusker talks about his despair at the idea of losing control over his mind, one wonders what particular connotations this might have to a gay man in his 60s, who likely had friends who succumbed during the AIDS crisis decades before. The script never explores this. The film wouldn’t necessarily benefit from a sex scene, and Firth and Tucci make a convincing couple. But it still plays into a middlebrow idea of good taste, in which gay men’s physical intimacy must be kept at arm’s length.
The final third of “Supernova” finally won me over, breaking down many of the barricades that the film seemed to have set up. It confirms that Macqueen knew what he was doing when he made the tone so cold at first. American and European culture finds it very hard to talk about death. Our cinema is much better at representing violence than pain or grief.
“Supernova” strips down its narrative until it eventually turns into a one-room chamber piece between Sam and Tusker, where they are forced to confront his mortality and their differing attitudes towards it. This section could be staged as a one-act play (and that’s not meant as criticism). “Supernova” very movingly accepts the reality of a looming collapse that no road trip can run away from.
“Supernova” is now streaming on VOD.
This story first appeared on our sister publication, Gay City News.