May 2021

Arts & Letters

Lodestar: ‘Supernova’

By Shane Danielsen

Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth star in Harry Macqueen’s quiet elegy to a loving relationship in its twilight

In Supernova, Sam and Tusker are a couple taking a road trip through England’s Lake District in their beloved campervan. Sam is a concert pianist (though semi-retired, for reasons that later become clear) and Tusker a novelist. As played, respectively, by Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, real-life friends for more than two decades, they’re affectionate, familiar; the film opens with the two of them lying together in bed, fast asleep, and the relaxed closeness of their embrace suggests long years of easy, unforced intimacy.

But Tusker’s new book is not going well, and what appears at first to be a case of writer’s block is soon revealed to be something much more serious: he’s been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Sam, meanwhile, has made the decision – unilaterally, it seems – to put his own career on hold in order to look after his ailing partner.

And so they’re on the road… though why, and on their way to what, we’re not immediately sure. One senses the presence of a capital-M metaphor – life is, after all, a highway, as that wise sage Tom Cochrane once observed – but the journey aspect is never overplayed. Ultimately, it’s just a structuring conceit, a way of moving these two characters through the various episodes that constitute the narrative.

Likewise, despite that title, there’s no big explosion here. On the contrary, dramatically as well as thematically, the film is concerned with the slow fade into darkness, the last light from stars already long dead. As written and directed by the English actor Harry Macqueen, its tone reflects its transatlantic casting, being neither tensely repressed in the British style nor talky and overwrought in the American one. Instead, it manages to walk a very fine line between movie-of-the-week tearjerker and Oscar-worthy Serious Drama. Events unfold patiently and incrementally. It’s refined without being overly tasteful, erudite without seeming mannered.

All of which might make Supernova sound boring, or programmatic. It’s neither. The film is simultaneously a love story and an elegy – perhaps the closest analogue is Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending, whose autumnal tone and artistic, faintly privileged milieu it shares. It doesn’t quite have the cinematic élan of Andrew Haigh’s takes on queer British life, but that’s perhaps to be expected: Weekend was a film about young men cruising, the exhilaration of the casual pickup; this one is about two 60-year-old men confronting the end of their lives together. A certain restraint goes with the territory.

However, the title also implies another, even more melancholy meaning. With its intimate scope, its unapologetic focus on older protagonists, Supernova feels itself like a delayed transmission from a vanished past, when words mattered and motives could be ambiguous and we still had an adult culture. There was a whole tradition of this kind of filmmaking in Hollywood and the United Kingdom – from ’70s classics such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and Carnal Knowledge (and pretty much the entire oeuvre of John Cassavetes) right up to films such as The Ice Storm and Hard Eight – but it ended around the same time Keanu chose the red pill. Now we live in a world where the sexuality of Dumbledore is the subject of academic conferences, and new developments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are broken like news stories about actual, living people.

And yet, a few films like this continue to get made, inevitably as passion projects for which their stars (if indeed there are stars) agree to waive some or all of their usual rewards just for a chance to do the very things – play nuanced characters, confront urgent moral dilemmas, deliver memorable dialogue – that drew them to their craft in the first place.

In this respect, at least, Supernova is unusually well served. Tucci and Firth are two of the more beloved contemporary actors, and their considerable chemistry accounts for a great deal of this film’s success. As he’s aged, Firth has exchanged the angelic beauty of his youth for something tougher and more saturnine. (Tom Ford’s A Single Man, I think, marked the turning point: his entry into rueful middle age.) Bearded, his lips pressed shut, a defence against various conversations he’d prefer not to have, much of Firth’s performance is done with his eyes, via looks that appear either anguished or irritated or warily alert.

Tucci meanwhile, though a technically superb actor, has the rare gift of making every part he plays seem like a facet of himself. He never vanishes completely into his characters, but rather imbues them with elements of his own personality: the sly humour, the disarming intelligence, the easy charm. In a lesser performer, this could feel lazy or ingratiating, but there’s usually a certain acidic quality to the work (and, I suspect, to the man) that holds the interest, even as you relish his onscreen company.

Also refreshing here is the lack of exposition and, by extension, the faith it places in the viewer’s intelligence. As in an Edward Yang movie, characters appear without introduction, and from their interactions we slowly piece together the relationships that bind them. This is grown-up storytelling of the sort abhorred by funders and script editors, who seem almost pathologically unwilling to accept that, just as in real life, there might be some pleasure to be found in discovery, and that an audience might actually enjoy putting some of the pieces together for themselves.

Similarly, the exchanges between Sam and Tusker are shaped by the accreted weight of their shared history. There are asides and in-jokes (Tusker’s prankish attempt, at a roadside diner, to convince their waitress that Sam is a major celebrity, is clearly a well-worn routine), but much here is communicated wordlessly – mostly, you sense, because so much between them has already been said. As a result, their reticence feels natural rather than contrived, a consequence of character.

But there’s also another kind of silence attached to Supernova, and it’s a faintly surprising one. When the project was first announced, the casting of Firth and Tucci seemed ever-so-slightly problematic. Neither man has ever admitted to a same-sex experience; each is ostensibly heterosexual. Are they therefore entitled to portray gay men? Are they allowed?

I ask because we’re in the midst of an interesting historical moment, a necessary and overdue period of correction for various longstanding societal biases. When Orange Is the New Black premiered on Netflix back in 2013, critics marvelled at the deep bench of talent it showcased from African-American, Hispanic and Asian actresses, groups traditionally excluded from A-list casting. Why, people wondered, could the film and television industries not more closely resemble the audiences they served?

Just eight years later, both movies and TV look very different. There’s far more space at the table – thank heavens – and different types of stories are being told by different kinds of people. Anyone not small enough to feel threatened by this should be grateful: the result is a far richer and less predictable world. But this growth has been accompanied by a policing of the creative imagination in the name of equality, a belief that representation should only come from those with “lived experience”.

In this regard, my position is simple: actors act. It’s the nature of the job to become something you’re not. “I will fight to the death,” Cate Blanchett said in 2018, “for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience.” It’s a view shared by pretty much every actor I’ve spoken to. (Not that many of them, right now, will say it on the record.) And there’s no need to applaud Firth and Tucci for their “courage” in playing gay characters, any more than there is to congratulate a gay actor for playing straight – something which, for the record, happens every fucking day. All that matters, ultimately, is the quality of the performance.

Likewise, as a writer, you have the right to tell any story you want – the only question that matters is how well you do it. By which I mean, if you’re dealing with cultures or experiences beyond your own, that you’re willing to do the research, be open to collaboration, accept that you won’t have all the answers. (The first and second of these, incidentally, are the fun part: you get to learn stuff and even make friends.) Not merely a check on authorial ego, these processes are also a necessary bulwark against the consequence of being forced to stay strictly in one’s own lane: an atomised and solipsistic literature.

Writing and acting have one important thing in common: they’re both expressions of empathy. You inhabit the particulars of a life outside of your own, and in turn attempt to render that experience faithfully to others. It’s not insular, or shouldn’t be. And while there’s much to be said for voices that speak from within a tradition, that shouldn’t preclude those outside it from undertaking the very act of imaginative affinity, which is the hallmark of the craft. Provided, of course, that those other, native voices are not silenced, that the gates are open to all. (And yes, vast structural biases remain to be addressed, and yes, that work will take decades. But I also think, in all this debate about identity politics, that we’re overlooking a more foundational issue: that the arts continues to be dominated by people wealthy enough to not need to make a living from it.)

As it is, I’m depressed by the current climate: the forces of wokeness battling an older-style liberalism that, pushed into a defensive posture, too often responds by finding allies on the right. The present moment is beginning to feel a little like the Cultural Revolution, when really it should be a celebration: Chloé Zhao and Barry Jenkins are arguably the hottest directors in Hollywood right now. Issa Rae just signed a multimillion-dollar deal with HBO. A revolution is under way, and our future will look nothing like our past – let a hundred flowers bloom! But in the meantime, go see Supernova, if only to be reminded that such a small, rare thing can still exist.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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