By Leah Greenblatt
January 28, 2021 at 12:29 PM EST
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A sixtyish couple in a camper van bickers comfortably about maps and rest stops and old songs from the '70s, a study in late-midlife intimacy. The twist — and how radically you find this to be a twist in 2021 will most likely effect a lot of what follows — is that they're both men, one of whom is terminally ill.

The other great determining factor, and ultimately Supernova's saving grace, is the two actors who play the pair at the center, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. Their generous, lived-in performances bring finer layers to what is at heart an old-fashioned and otherwise surprisingly conventional melodrama about love and loss.

Tucci is Tusker, an American novelist who has spent decades in England with Firth's Sam, a semi-retired concert pianist, and they speak in the kind of shorthand that only long-married people can; just another wooly-sweatered duo toodling through the countryside in their little RV. But Tusker isn't well — and his condition is deteriorating rapidly, which means this trip isn't so much the beginning of some new leisure phase in their lives as a chance to say goodbye.

The centerpiece of that farewell is a party, held at the country home of Sam's big-hearted sister (Bodyguard's Pippa Haywood). The soul of the story, though, consistently returns to its two leads, and their diverging efforts to accept the inevitable decline to come. Writer-director Harry McQueen (Hinterland) hits all those marks expertly, though the beats in his script often feels less organic than engineered for maximum emotional payoff, pulling heartstrings and laugh lines on cue.

To mitigate some of that, he has famed cinematographer Dick Pope (The Illusionist, Mr. Turner), who lavishes his lens on gorgeously pastoral shots of long roads and rolling British hills, framing each one like a Titian painting. And of course Tucci and Firth, whose easy, tender interplay grounds nearly every scene, even when McQueen can't seem to help slipping into certain reflexive indie tropes. (Supernova isn't just the title, alas; it must also of course be a Very Important Metaphor, to which several astronomy-themed scenes are dedicated).

If it all comes off a little thin and tidy in the end — and reminiscent of so many terminal tearjerkers that have come before, from Still Alice to last year's Blackbird — it's the combined incandescence of the stars at the center of the screen, not the ones meant to be gazed at through telescopes, that carries the movie; its best and truest source of light. Grade: B+

Supernova hits theaters Jan. 29, and will be available on VOD platforms beginning Feb. 16.

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