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Supernova (2021)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/08/21 02:11:58

"Less about the explosion than the contraction that comes before."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The title of "Supernova" gives the game away if you know your astronomy, but this is not a film about surprising you so much as getting you settled in for the inevitable, so that's fine. It's bucolic in its way, contrasting cozy spaces with lovely landscapes, letting the small cast enjoy each other so that the audience can enjoy them as well.

Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) have been together for a long time, and used to go on road trips like the one they're on more often, but life gets busy and people slow down. This time, they're loaded into their RV for a trip out to the country where Sam will be giving a piano recital, stopping to see Sam's sister Lily (Pippa Haywood) and her husband Clive (Peter MacQueen) along the way. There probably won't be many more like it; though still fairly lively and witty, and young for its onset, Tusker is in the early stages of dementia.

Writer/director Harry Macqueen doesn't exactly try to hide that in the early going, but does present it as something that Sam and Tusker are trying hard to work around. The solitude of the film's first act means that there is no reason to explain the situation but plenty of time to observe the different levels of energy between the two and take note of how the activities presented as therapeutic are seeping into the rest of how they interact. It's early, so Sam's life is not yet consumed with accommodating Tusker's illness, but one can see it starting. It's a dynamic that will change when they reach Sam's childhood home; Lilly and Clive know the score, and they can't pretend it's not a big deal.

Not that Macqueen is going to have this be terribly melodramatic. Though there are moments when the couple's separate intentions for dealing with this come into conflict, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth are playing smart people who have already played this out in their heads, whether they admit it or not. They play a couple that has settled in nicely, able to poke at each other with affection but also simply be affectionate, because there's nothing for them to prove after all these years. They take good advantage of their characters' shared history so that moments of confusion have weight, and little bits of stress in their voices stand out. Tucci in particular does a nice job of creating alternating layers to Tusker, his innate friendliness getting a coat of fear which he is mostly successful in covering with more earnest cheer, letting the moments where the physical symptoms of dementia appear imply more to come. Firth does well to project strength in a way that is seldom rigid, even when he's breaking down.

But for some time in the middle, this is by and large a two-person show, the sort that could almost be a play, but Macqueen seldom limits it to that sort of stage-bound limitation, especially during the pair's time on the road. There's both the comfort and unsteadiness to the way the filmmakers switch scales from wide shots of the road that seem designed for Imax but quickly narrow to tight shots that would be at home on small TVs. There's never anything to distract, maybe as much for in-story reasons as Sam tries to keep Tusker from having to process too much as for us, and despite the film being rooted in the present, all but one or two scenes occur in places unchanged for decades or generations, focusing and grounding. The world endures even as we burn out, and the light sent out generations ago still endures.

It's a fairly simple film and plays out as the audience expects (and, as an aside, a great double feature with "Nomadland"), and indeed almost assures the viewer that it won't do otherwise as Tusker explains what a supernova is to Sam's niece without actually using that word. But that's okay; everyone's good at what's being asked of them, and there's value in learning to sit with something that can't be avoided.

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