The casting of Oscar-bait zaddies Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci to portray a longtime gay couple in Harry Macqueen’s drama Supernova set many hearts racing from the word go. Then again, two more purportedly straight stars playing gay also added fuel to the fire in a raging debate over queer representation, and the casting of LGBTQ actors to play LGBTQ roles.
But one angle of this debate that the sweet, maudlin Supernova (★★★☆☆) seems to settle for sure is that straight A-listers like Firth and Tucci only take on these same-sex-loving roles when death is on the line. So, cue the haunting cellos, steep a soothing tea, and prepare for a moving tale of love and loss.
Firth and Tucci are Sam and Tusker, a middle-aged married pianist and author, respectively, road-tripping across England’s North Lakes countryside in a camper van. Retracing routes of holidays past, the pair ambles from lakeside to lakeside, eating at roadside cafes, bickering over whether or not to engage the GPS. They lie under the stars at night, Tusker mapping out the constellations for an attentive Sam. They couldn’t be a cuter couple. But wait — there’s Tusker and Sam’s adorable pooch, Ruby, played to scene-stealing perfection by a chocolate-colored scamp named Truffles. It’s all a little precious at times.
Writer-director Macqueen risks cuteness overload. Even the production design feels conspicuously cozy, all comfy sweaters, giant kitchens, and rustic tables topped with fresh-cut wildflowers. But churning just beneath the bourgeois surface is the devastating fact of Tusker’s grim medical diagnosis, early-onset dementia that too quickly is robbing him of his faculties and independence. Over the course of a pleasant visit with Sam’s doting sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood) and her family, the pair’s road-trip evolves new meaning, as Sam and Tusker confront the next and possibly most challenging chapter in their love story.
In depicting a married couple’s struggle with illness and mortality, Macqueen shows compelling restraint. The camera, and much of the story, often rests on Firth’s watchful eyes. Especially in silence, or at his lowest moments, Sam’s eyes can never hide the truth of his tangled web of emotions. And volumes of shared history between lovers are legible in how Sam holds Tusker, pushes him away, or simply sits and stares at him.
On his side, Tucci puts those expressive caterpillar eyebrows to work, as Tusker maintains a stiff upper lip and his impish sense of humor. Tusker occasionally gives in to pique or melancholy, recognizing that people appear ready to mourn him while he’s still around but fading. Only he doesn’t want to mourn, nor, he says, does he want to be reminded of his illness. He doesn’t take well to being coddled. He just wants these days with Sam.
There’s joy in seeing them indulge an idyll of quality time — at leisure, in comfort, amid the beauty of natural surroundings — knowing their time together may be short. Against the tender backdrop of veteran cinematographer Dick Pope’s mountain and lake tableaux, human connection occupies the foreground, two men in love representing all that that entails, from the kitchen to the bedroom, and all along life’s circuitous path.
If we’re debating swoon-worthy onscreen gay couples, Tusker and Sam are no Ennis and Jack, no Kevin and Chiron, and their chemistry won’t exactly singe the leather off anyone’s seat. Friendship, commitment, inner strength, and inspiration are more this duo’s style. The less said about their anemic, pursed-lip kisses, the better.
Supernova is in theaters, where open, on Jan. 29, and available via VOD starting February 16. Visit www.fandango.com.
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