Harry Macqueen’s Supernova joins the canon of dementia-related illness movies like Away From Her (2007) and Still Alice (2014) — and suffers in comparison. The film distinguishes itself by featuring a gay male couple but fails to ground the audience in their shared history. Among the three movies, Sarah Polley’s Away From Her has the distinct advantage of being adapted from a short story by the Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro. It’s one of the rare occasions when a film complements rather than detracts from the source material. Additionally, Polley cast Julie Christie, who’s stunning in the lead role as a woman who can no longer remember her husband or their married life together.
Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her performance in Still Alice but the movie is aesthetically neutered. The filmmakers’ contained the tragic subject matter — the decay of the character’s memory and sense of self — in a standard melodrama. The story is sad but drab and unsurprising as it draws the outline of a generic family in trouble. While the scenic backgrounds, subplots and supporting characters stay tonally beige or gray, Moore’s performance comes to the fore and dominates every frame she’s in. Macqueen, like the co-directors of Still Alice, also removes any sense of an auteur’s presence while he’s behind the camera. What fails him in Supernova though is the structure of his own wayward script.
Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) are on a road trip through the idyllic English countryside when we meet them. There are several, leisurely wide shots of pretty hills, trees, and dales. The couple is on vacation, revisiting places from their past and then making their way to Sam’s sister’s house. Sam and Tusker move comfortably through a benign world. If people outside of their protected bubble ever showed signs of hostility or homophobia, they’ve either evolved beyond that kind of pettiness or they’ve developed an immunity against it. This could be attributed to the blinders that can arrive in late middle age or because they’re both satisfied with their shared life as successful artists. Sam’s a musician and Tusker, a name that only a screenwriter could invent, is an author.
Apart from these facts, neither character exudes much individuality or charisma. It’s as if Macqueen kept whispering in each actor’s ear, “Smaller. Smaller. And even less than that.” I would have liked to have seen their dynamic at home before they hit the road. Still Alice isn’t a revolutionary film but it provides enough context for the audience to know what Alice is in the process of losing. At the end of Supernova, I understood that Tusker (that name!) was having trouble writing, but was left with a visual blank where the details of his career and personal life should have been.
Firth and Tucci get stuck acting like an ordinary couple rather than registering as an actual couple. The director doesn’t favor one man over the other, and that’s part of the problem. As actors, they’re both being too polite to upstage each other, or to reach for something less expected. Both of these straight actors have played gay characters before with oodles of conviction. Firth mourned the loss of his lover in A Single Man (2009). And Tucci was Miranda Priestly’s right hand, dandy of a man in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). So it’s not that Sam and Tusker don’t read as gay men. It’s that, for a couple who’ve been together for 20 years, they’re remarkably frictionless. In the old days, critics would put it like this, “They don’t have any romantic chemistry.”
When Firth and Tucci share physical spaces together, without other characters on screen, they’re especially unconvincing. If you press the mute button for the duration of a random scene, they never look truly relaxed in each other’s company (unless they’re shown asleep in bed). Without the dialogue telling us what their relationship is, or an obligatory kiss or two, I’d have guessed they’re old pals away for a guys’ weekend away without the wives.
The formality between two strangers falls away after you’ve lived together awhile. Hair (and sometimes teeth) doesn’t get brushed. The fiction of an assembled facade easily and frequently crumbles. Sam and Tusker’s affectionate moments, along with their strident ones, all feel scripted rather than spontaneous. I kept thinking of Love Is Strange (2014), a film that runs parallel to Macqueen’s. In it, an older gay couple struggles to maintain their relationship after they lose their housing. I was so caught up in their dilemma I didn’t question the reality of their situation as played out by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.
That compelling dramatic element is missing from Supernova. The director tries to make the story cohere poetically with various monologues that employ metaphors about outer space and the universe. Like Still Alice, the movie is an informative, and perhaps comforting, place to land if a loved one is suffering from some form of dementia. But Macqueen’s approach to his leading men is too respectful. Instead of zooming in close to get inside their heads, he keeps his distance, as does the audience.
Supernova opens in theaters on January 29 and online February 16.