Writer-director Harry Macqueen’s Supernova opens with images soothingly catalog-ready. Long-time lovers Sam and Tusker (Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, respectively) awake tangled in their duvet, tasteful sidebutt sold separately. They start a trek across an idyllic English countryside equipped with sensible sweaters and David Bowie’s “Heroes” softly on the stereo of their hip retro RV. The incoming emotional pain of their short journey is captured in docile tones and full Instagram-friendly splendour. That’s not just British Isle fog hovering just over the beautiful surface in Supernova, it’s the bar for gay cinema being kept as low (and superficial) as possible.
Inoffensively composed, the somber film finds the couple on a brief journey to revisit their romantic past and spend time with scattered loved ones. Quickly we learn of Tusker’s rapidly encroaching dementia, acknowledged mostly in passive side glances as he increasingly loses language and awareness. Sam keeps his devastation contained by making himself the martyr caregiver, willing to throw himself in front of the train of tending to his deteriorating partner. Tusker has other plans though, ones that are quite obvious from the onset, because the film in front of us is a story we have heard many, many times before.
The film relies heavily on the charisma of its two top notch leads to obscure its paltriness, and succeeds to some degree. It’s easy to get lost in Firth’s wounded boyishness and Tucci’s off-handed self-acceptance, understated traits that have gone underappreciated in their previous work but put on full display here. Their chemistry is natural and has a worn ease that builds a sense of history for the two that Macqueen’s screenplay cannot. The lack of their stuffy, stiff upper lip typecast does its own work to create a perception of vulnerability for the audience. With such lovable actors paired together in such sentimental fashion, the film leans into their sadness until it rends every bit of emotion from the audience it can muster.
Except emotion is not Supernova’s problem. The film isn’t all that interested in human complexity, reducing what it means to make a decision about your own diagnosis (or being the loved one who must accept it) to simple sads. Supernova only has audience tears on its agenda, and thinks it can earn them on its subject matter alone. Though the film can be thanked for its unexpected brevity and brisk pacing, Sam and Tusker remain archetypal and lacking in the human messiness that allows us to see something relatably human. Aggressively unambitious, it has few discernible traits of its own beyond its bland and cozy aesthetics.
Supernova is something of an acoustic setlist by a cover band of the aging couple mortality films of the past two decades, but is a far cry from the profound core that made 45 Years, Amour, or Away From Her burn with painful insight. This film is far more laid back and with less inquisitive intentions than those would-be peers. At first, the film’s soft approach makes it feel like it has a more casual eye towards tragic material. But with each note of conflict between Sam and Tusker’s coping mechanisms comes flatter and flatter emotional terrain for Firth and Tucci to explore. It’s not far into the film’s brief runtime that we realize its gentleness moreso reflects the thinness of its characterization than a particular compassionate vibe. Death and love shouldn’t be so facile.
This is doubly so for Supernova depicting a gay couple. The flatness is all the more frustrating because it overlooks possible ways that facets of Sam and Tucker’s experiences might be informed by their gay identity. Instead, the uncomplicated nature of the film’s relationship with queerness feels intentional, like an artifact of decades prior with “gays: they’re just like you” retrograde mentality. Who is this film for? I’m guessing they already receive the West Elm catalog it is emulating, so it’ll probably serve little once it gets to them. Supernova is a more satisfying movie for sweatersexuals than homosexuals.
As it coasts along to its conclusion, it becomes increasingly likely that the film is just an elaborate stab at aspirational lifestyle in a weepy context. It might sell us on a new sensible cashmere pullover, or the enduring legacy of Firth and Tucci’s hotness, but it sells us on little else.