The new Colin Firth-Stanley Tucci drama “Supernova” deserves some credit for not milking easy tears. Unfortunately, it doesn’t milk difficult ones, either. It’s a movie that lays out a scenario rife with dramatic and poignant potential before deciding the potential was apparently enough.
There’s no question that it’s a cozily well-crafted production, from the protagonists’ sweaters to legendary cinematographer Dick Pope’s stunning images of the British countryside, but by the time the film reaches its final fade-out, there’s a sense that writer-director Harry Macqueen (“Hinterland”) left too much unspoken and unexplored.
Firth and Tucci play a longtime couple who leave London in their RV for a long trip. Their destination is a concert, the first that celebrated pianist Sam (Firth) has performed in years. He’s put his career on hold to become caretaker to novelist Tusker (Tucci), who has spent the last two years dealing with the early stages of dementia. Sam tells friends that Tusker will be finishing his new book any day now, but it’s clear that Tusker’s condition is only getting worse.
Tusker has explored end-of-life options over Sam’s objections, and the boldest notion that “Supernova” has to offer is that Sam’s goal to keep Tusker alive and to tend to his needs is actually more about Sam’s fear of being alone than it is an act of kindness or generosity or compassion. But while individuals, and couples, in real life grapple with these complicated issues in ways that address the messiness and vulnerability of human life, the film never strays too far from nice and clever and tidy at every turn.
Granted, for a film to take seriously the notion of a character wanting to determine the time and method of his own death still feels revolutionary, even though it’s an increasingly common practice. (“I want to be remembered for who I was, but not for who I’m about to become,” Tusker tells Sam. “That’s the only thing I can control.”) It still could have gone deeper into how those decisions reverberate with caregiving loved ones.
The movie never traffics in cheap sentimentality, to its credit — Tusker’s symptoms are mostly limited to wandering off one time, dropping a plate, and being unable to read a toast to Sam he’s written for a party — but it doesn’t traffic in much else, either. Firth and Tucci are up to the task of taking an audience into uncomfortable places, but Macqueen rarely seems to want to go there.
(Regarding the issue of heterosexual actors Firth and Tucci playing a gay couple: One can simultaneously admire the commitment and emotional depth that these two veterans bring to the film while also wishing that at least one of the roles could have been filled by an out gay actor. These performers do at least have, respectively, “A Single Man” and “The Devil Wears Prada” under their belts.)
Even if the script undercuts the enormity of what their characters are enduring, the two lead actors rescue the film from utter negligibility. They make Sam and Tusker’s relationship feel lived-in, whether they’re getting on each other’s nerves or providing each other with love and support, and they create meaningful moments apart from each other as well.
There’s an emotional wallop simmering beneath the surface of “Supernova”; it’s just too bad that surface is all there winds up being.
“Supernova” opens in select theaters January 29 and on demand February 16.