After decades of films in which LGBTQ people were so often victims of tragedy (it became known as the “kill your gays” trope) it’s nice to see more movies being made where we don’t have to suffer so much.
We now have queer love stories that end happily, stories about queer young people that have nothing to do with the struggle to come out, and even stories that feature LGBTQ superheroes. Even better, we are now allowed to exist in stories that aren’t about us; our queerness is unimportant to the plot but we’re part of it, nonetheless.
That’s the goal of representation; the onscreen world needs to include LGBTQ people right alongside everyone else, just like real life. More than that, it needs to depict the experience of being LGBTQ authentically.
True authenticity, however, requires showing the bad along with the good, and that presents a quandary. There is a tendency to equate positive representation with a happily-ever-after ending, and anything falling short of that ideal runs the risk of being characterized as a regression to the days when we were punished in the movies simply for being who we are. It’s understandable, of course; for a community so long deprived of positive stories about itself, it’s easy to see why anything less would be a hard pass.
That’s one of the hurdles faced by “Supernova” in finding a queer audience. The new film by British writer/director Harry Macqueen may be a love story between two gay men, but it’s every bit as bleak as it is authentic.
The two men in question are Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a deeply bonded couple on the upper end of middle age, who’ve been together so long they are like extensions of one other. Sam, a once-prominent pianist, has been coaxed into playing his first recital in years, so the pair set out in their old RV on a road trip across the English countryside; their plan is to visit family, friends, and hallowed spots from their memories together as they make their way to the performance venue, but there’s a deeper motivation, too. Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and his condition is deteriorating faster than either of them want to admit. Hoping to make the most of the time they have left, the two men are on a quest to come to terms with the future before Tusker’s mind and memories fade away forever.
Audiences jaded by Hollywood’s typically ham-handed treatment of such subjects might be tempted to assume that’s a scenario for just another overtly sentimental tear-jerker. Fortunately, Macqueen’s film (his second feature after 2014’s “Hinterland”) is not a product of Hollywood, but of the UK film industry, and while that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a higher level of sophistication, it certainly improves the odds. What pushes “Supernova” into the category of a sure bet is its understated, elegiac screenplay.
Macqueen lets his characters reveal themselves gradually. The depth of their relationship is built for us in observing these two men interact with the kind of casual comfort that comes from years of being together, a sort of intimate indifference that any long-term couple is sure to recognize. Their tenderness is matter-of-fact, and when they snipe at one another it’s only for the fun of sparring. When things inevitably begin to get heavy, there are no emotional outbursts, no histrionic laments, no ugly crying. Instead, their feelings are expressed in small moments, through a tender touch, a burst of anger, or a shared laugh over a bit of gallows humor. The true weight of their grief, however, is most obvious in the way they talk around it. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, it’s there for everyone to see, but there’s nothing to be done about it. The sorrow is a given. What matters to these lovers – and ultimately, to “Supernova” – is how they can each make peace with a grim but inevitable future, so they can find the strength to face it together as a couple.
As a director, Macqueen doubles down on the same restraint. His visual style, composed within the gold-tinted hues of Dick Pope’s rich cinematography, is stately and picturesque, capturing the soothing calm of England’s Lake District while evoking a sense of nostalgic melancholy. At the same time, he artfully exploits the power of simplicity by letting the imagery speak for itself, without embellishment. He captures moments that are both intimate and profound; his artful shots of the two lovers – whether entwined in naked sleep on their bed, holding hands as they enjoy a beautiful view, or gazing into the vastness of the eternal cosmos together – tell us more about shared human experience than any heart-tugging monologue could ever hope to convey. The studied elegance of his “less-is-more” aesthetic keeps his film from veering into the manipulative territory that could easily undermine the cumulative emotional power it works so carefully to build.
Macqueen’s greatest asset, though, is undoubtedly his actors. In Firth and Tucci, he has two such gifted collaborators that he can trust them completely to honor the subtlety of his script, and he takes full advantage by simply putting them in front of his camera and letting them do their thing. Neither actor identifies as gay, though both have notably “played gay” several times before; while today’s sensitivity around the subject of inclusion might make their casting in these roles a point of contention for some (that’s the other hurdle the movie has to face), it has nothing to do with the quality of their work. They are utterly, heartbreakingly believable together; the depth of Tusker and Sam’s connection – or of their love for each other – is never in doubt for a moment, thanks to the skill of these two veteran film artists. There’s Oscar buzz around both performances, and deservedly so.
The result of all this subdued emotion is a movie that can be called stoic in the best sense of the word. By making its protagonists face their hard truth without allowing them the luxury of wallowing in their extreme emotions, “Supernova” forces its audience to do the same. There is no illusion of hope offered, despite half-hearted discussions of promising treatments or clung-to fantasies of some future trip to Italy; there is no remedy and no escape. Yet somehow, the cold frankness of their circumstance never dulls the love they feel for one another, nor diminishes the value of what they have shared during their many years together; somehow, even in the midst of their sorrow, there is joy.
That’s what makes “Supernova” remarkable. It confronts us with the hard truth that every love story ends unhappily, if you follow it all the way, and that’s something most of us must eventually face but few of us want to think about. By letting us share in Tusker and Sam’s tragedy, it allows us to rehearse for our own; that makes it a hard film to watch, but for viewers who are brave enough to stick it through, the rewards are rich indeed.