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Firth, Tucci face tragedy with restraint in ‘Supernova’

Oscar buzz mounts for two straight actors playing gay

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Supernova, gay news, Washington Blade
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci star in ‘Supernova,’ which is available for streaming on Jan. 29. (Image courtesy of Bleeker Street)

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.

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‘Hamlet/Horatio’ queers the Bard

A contemporary take on classic play

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Andrew Burdette and Themo Melikidze in ‘Hamlet/Horatio.’ (Photo courtesy Glasshouse)

While it’s not exactly a pressing topic in most people’s lives, the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality has been hotly debated by literary scholars, theater artists, and historians for centuries. After all, not only are his plays filled with gender-swapping characters and sexual confusion, he also wrote a series of sonnets, widely considered the most romantic poems ever composed in English, and dedicated them to a mysterious young nobleman. Even in the Renaissance, when the “cult of male friendship” was a real thing and male artists could create breathtakingly erotic depictions of young men to be displayed in a church, such a bold gesture of affection from one man to another must have raised at least a few eyebrows.

It’s a controversy that isn’t likely to go away, considering the fact that anyone who might give us first-hand knowledge on the subject has been dead for about 400 years. And while some contemporary artists, across various media, have been willing to explore the playwright’s work through the lens of his possible queerness, most cinematic interpretations – with a few notable exceptions, like Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest” – have kept things decidedly hetero-centric.

Paul Warner, director of the soon-to-be-released “Hamlet/Horatio,” which riffs on a central but often overlooked relationship in Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, can’t imagine why. A graduate of both Harvard and the American Film Institute, Warner is currently a senior instructor of acting, directing, and producing at The New York Film Academy. He’s also a Shakespeare veteran, having been involved in many stage renditions of the Bard’s work (including a rock musical version of “Twelfth Night”) throughout his career – and as he tells the Blade, it’s obvious to him that the revered wordsmith was either gay or bisexual.

“There’s a tremendous amount of exploration of gender fluidity in his work,” he says. “There’s never a label on it, but it permeates Shakespeare. There are a lot of characters who fall in love with the soul of the person, rather than the gender.”

While these themes may run through comedies like “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It,” they are considerably less obvious in Shakespeare’s tragedies – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and Warner’s new film hinges on using them to illuminate one of the most iconic male friendships in literature.

For those unfamiliar, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is the tale of a Danish prince, who is visited by the ghost of his recently murdered father and told to seek revenge against the murderer – none other than Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, who has not only murdered the former king but taken both his throne and his queen, Gertrude, who is also Hamlet’s mother. Seeking confirmation of the crime, Hamlet engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with his uncle, in which both Hamlet’s presumed future bride Ophelia and her brother Laertes become unwitting pawns. It goes without saying that things don’t turn out well – but through it all, one steadfast and trusted figure stands at Hamlet’s side: his confidant and companion, Horatio.

“Hamlet/Horatio,” which Warner directed from a script by playwright (and frequent stage collaborator) David Vando, reimagines the original play through an unusual conceit. In his dying moments, Hamlet (Andrew Burdette) sees his life flashing before his eyes, unfolding through a film that Horatio (Themo Melikidze) directs to tell his story. By shuffling dialogue, resetting scenes, and leaning deeply into subtext, Warner reframes Hamlet’s experience into a story of spiritual and humanistic transcendence – and reveals a deeply intimate, loving bond between these two young men that has perhaps been “hiding in plain sight” all along.

Despite his interest in exploring the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio, Warner insists that he didn’t set out to make a “gay Shakespeare movie.” Indeed, he is adamant even now that the intention behind Vondo’s script (which he helped to adapt into a screenplay) was to “move past” that conception.

“Part of it was trying not to make things ‘gay’ or ‘straight,’ or ‘this’ or ‘that’ anymore, but really it’s about two people who are flip sides of each other,” he explains. “They are spiritually two sides of the same coin. And they’re in a relationship – it’s clear that there is a repressed love there. And there’s definitely an exploration of their homosexuality, but also of the fluidity of their sexuality.

“This is why the characters don’t wear their ‘identities’ on their sleeves. We wanted to show something more closely resembling a non-binary, gender-fluid vision of love and sexuality that is part of a bigger story about human truth.”

To that end, he envisioned a version of “Hamlet” in which the Denmark’s Elsinore castle bears a striking resemblance to the Trump White House. The usurping king is a despot posing as a benefactor, exerting an authoritarian rule and setting the people close to him against each other to prove their loyalty, while his queen turns a blind eye to his increasingly obvious misdeeds.

“Maybe I’m one-sided, but I tried to depict the ‘ickyness’ of that Melania-Donald dynamic between Claudius and Gertrude,” he says, not without a hint of relish. “I’ve made her trapped, like Melania, and she’s constantly drinking – she’s an immigrant, and she doesn’t speak up because she’s controlled by his finances.”

In this light, as Warner puts it, Hamlet becomes a hero of resistance, who rises to “slay” fascism, while Horatio is the filmmaker who documents it.

“It’s ultimately about Hamlet’s spiritual journey to fullness. It’s about him letting go of rage and embracing the light.”

Yet, when all is said and done, it’s the love between these two men that shines above all else.

“Hamlet eventually sacrifices his life to root out the corruption and to save those who are still alive – which is basically Horatio, his boyfriend, because everybody else is dead.”

“Hamlet/Horatio” has already played in front of audiences at a number of festivals, and has taken honors at several of them – including a Best Feature Film Jury Award at last year’s inaugural FFTG (Film Festivals to Go) Fest. The enthusiastic response has given Warner reason to hope that, despite his “queering of Shakespeare,” his film will find a “wider audience” when it debuts on digital platforms in June.

Of course, Warner fully expects to be raked across the coals for some of the liberties he has taken, such as the choice to cast transgender Native American actor Ty Defoe as the Player King and the inclusion of a scene where Hamlet and Horatio take a steam bath together – “which is not anywhere in ‘Hamlet,’ of course,” he says with a laugh.

Still, for him, his approach to the material rings true to the source.

“There’s a timelessness in the way Shakespeare deals with the danger of rage, and how that threatens spirituality. In his plays, you always have the autocrats, who want to control others, and then you have the purer people, usually younger characters, like Hamlet, who propose love, who pursue a humanitarian vision against them. That’s Shakespeare, who was, of course, writing under a monarchy.

“And after four years of authoritarian rule under Trump, I think he was way ahead of his time.”

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JxJ celebrates Jewish LGBTQ film at festival

Movies include ‘Kiss Me Kosher,’ ‘Marry Me However’

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A scene from 'Bra Mitzvah'

For this year’s festival lineup, JxJ will be presenting its “Rated LGBTQ” series, which highlights films with LGBTQ themes, characters, and creators. The festival will run from May 23-30. The films featured include: “Kiss Me Kosher”(outdoor screening at the Bender JCC May 30 at 8pm, $12 per person); “Marry Me However” (virtual screening, $11 per household); “Sublet” (virtual screening, $11 per household); “Bra Mitzvah” (short film, part of the Run the World (Girls) virtual shorts program, $11 per household); “I Want to Make a Film About Women” (short film, part of the Breaking Through virtual shorts program, $11 per household).

Tickets and information about the films are available here.

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Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs screens ‘Eat With Me’

David Au’s directorial debut presented

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In celebration of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, The Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, DC Public Library, and the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs host a screening of “Eat With Me” for May’s #DCQueerFlix on May 14, beginning at 6 p.m.

“Eat With Me,” David Au’s directorial debut, features the story of a mother and her gay son learning to reconnect while trying to keep their business afloat. The film offers a novel take on love, life, and food in the center of Los Angeles.

“Eat With Me” will be available on the Kanopy streaming service and is free for D.C. library patrons.

To register for this virtual event, visit the Eventbrite page.

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