Over the course of their careers, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth have established themselves not only as beloved personalities and award-winning actors, but also as two of the internet’s boyfriends. That the two—both of whom have played gay characters before, enough so that this now marks the second film in which Edward Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour” plays a key role in Firth’s on-screen relationship with another man—finally play a couple in the new movie Supernova seems almost too good to be true. The news that the movie had signed distribution deals was covered by Vanity Fair with the headline “What Did We Do to Deserve a Love Story Starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci?” But, though the union of these two thirst objects is likely the reason many people will seek the film out, to reduce it to such simplistic terms does the drama a disservice.
Tusker (Tucci) and Sam (Firth), who have been partners for two decades, are taking a camper van on a road trip across England. Their final destination is the Lake District, where Sam, a pianist, is set to give a concert, but the journey serves a dual purpose. Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and the trip is a sort of last hurrah as the couple gather with friends and family along the way. Though the film’s title suggests a story that’s vast in scope, Supernova is remarkably small in scale. Tusker and Sam are alone (well, alone together) for the bulk of the film, and though they’re on the road, the fact that the RV serves as a temporary home effectively winnows down the number of places that they actually visit. The van, Sam’s old family home, a rented house—Supernova is modest in every respect except its emotional impact. In the characters’ internal arcs, the title—the name for a stellar explosion—comes fully into perspective.
Writer-director Harry Macqueen keeps the amount of exposition as low as possible, leaning into a naturalism that pays off in the film’s back half after a major revelation upsets the already tenuous balance that Tusker and Sam are maintaining. In place of heavy backstory, the director relies upon what audiences will likely already project upon his two leads—that they are likable, funny, and down-to-earth—and uses that immediate connection to his advantage. Those familiar with Tucci and Firth will already be rooting for Tusker and Sam, and those who haven’t yet been initiated into either fan club will still be hard-pressed to be unmoved by the easy rapport between the pair (who are real-life friends), not just when they’re ribbing each other but when they are forced to confront the signs of Tusker’s worsening dementia.
Emotion is the point, rather than action, with each scene serving a distinct purpose in fleshing out how Tusker and Sam, respectively, are feeling, instead of just pushing the plot along. What little dialogue there is always serves a purpose—Sam admitting to his sister, for instance, that he feels he’s doing a bad job of taking care of Tusker—and more than a few scenes carry out in silence. When Tusker wanders away from the RV early on in the film, Sam’s ensuing search barely involves any words. Their reunion happens at a distance—Macqueen keeps the camera by the van as Sam runs to Tusker, letting his actors’ body language do the talking as Sam first dismisses a concerned on-looker, then pulls a still-uncertain Tusker into his embrace.
Neither Tucci nor Firth has ever shied away from being vulnerable on screen—hence the handful of Tucci’s recent roles that call upon him to play a sympathetic shoulder (The Devil Wears Prada, Easy A, Julie & Julia) and Firth’s willingness to star in prestige pictures like The King’s Speech and A Single Man as well as the Mamma Mia film series—and Supernova requires vulnerability first and foremost. The ups and downs that Tusker and Sam experience are rocky, and the film is less a flattering character portrait for either lead than it is an attempt at capturing an impossibly difficult experience. There are lovely moments between the two characters, but there are rough edges, too, as in an impromptu wrestling match that breaks out when one man makes a last-ditch attempt at hiding a secret from the other. Sorrow and impending tragedy don’t preclude moments of joy, and vice versa. The film never veers into overly sentimental or otherwise hammy territory. It never becomes an exploitation of grief.
Supernova’s unpretentiousness might mean it gets forgotten come awards season, but Macqueen’s commitment to telling an honest story, and the wonderful performances on display, are what distinguish Supernova as a great movie. It’s much more than its surface appeal as a two-hander starring a couple of the most beloved actors alive—though, if you’re only watching to see Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth kiss, it delivers on that front, too.