A still from Supernova.

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For a film about life, death, and the universe, Supernova is a surprisingly modest affair. It’s a restrained two-hander about partners Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), who have reached the phase of their long-term relationship when they laugh about their fights while they’re still having them. As they travel through the English countryside on a journey whose stakes elude us at first, Supernova, written and directed by Harry Macqueen, could be mistaken for a play adapted into a film: Their life is one long conversation that only stops when they have to change locations.

We meet them at an inflection point when the conversation is starting to get a little more strained. There are now stops and starts and feelings unexpressed. Tusker is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; he can still remember his friends, his family, and himself, but he’s starting to grasp for words. For a writer, this is a profound loss. On the edge of darkness, Sam and Tusker decide the best response is to take a road trip to visit friends and look at the stars, a hobby of Tusker’s that comes in handy for a metaphor or two. Although he is still perfectly capable of functioning, the trip has the feeling of one last hurrah.

Over warm meals, a visit with friends, and long stretches of driving, Sam and Tusker inch closer to a reckoning with the realities that lay ahead. At first, it’s delightful to simply be around these two charming men who have so much love for each other, but their ability to shrug off a fight starts to tug at something deeper. There are grave truths unspoken, and their easy rapport, which is so charming in the early going, starts to feel more like a bandage over a wound that desperately needs attention.

It’s a scenario that allows Firth and Tucci to do some rarely complex work. Making their romantic bond believable is the easy part; these are two actors who specialize in eye-smiles and affectionate smirks. But as the characters drive deeper into the English wilderness, whose mystery is deftly captured by cinematographer Dick Pope, their deepest emotions begin to surface. Both actors have specialized in portraying sturdy, grown-up types, and it’s compelling to watch these characters struggle to hide their feelings and wonder who their subterfuge is for, even more so than when they explode into unbridled declarations of fear, love, and resentment.  

For the film, that specialty is a curse and blessing. Every time the film seems poised to ripple forth with honesty, the screenplay forces them backwards into a more comfortable emotional distance. It’s all very logical. The characters come from a creative class more comfortable speaking in clever quips than being honest with each other. But too often, Supernova is limited by that style. It places them in emotionally fraught moments, then gets them out of it with a writerly flourish. “You break my heart,” one  says to another at a key point, a phrase that is both emotionally direct and maddeningly affected. It’s not enough to erase the tender mood and heartfelt performances of Supernova, but it leaves you, much like its characters, grasping for closeness before the big fade-out.

Supernova premieres on VOD on Jan. 29.