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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
In the new film "Supernova," Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play a gay couple coming to terms - or trying to come to terms, anyway - with the fact that Tucci's character is experiencing early onset dementia. They take one last trip together, touring the British Lake District, visiting old friends and family. And while they try to enjoy these moments together, their shared knowledge of what's bearing down on them exposes the fears and secrets they've been trying so hard to keep from each other.
I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about the intimate, understated, yet really kind of devastating "Supernova" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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WELDON: Welcome back. Joining me from his home in Washington, D.C., is NPR arts critic Bob Mondello. Hey, Bob.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be here.
WELDON: Good to see you. So "Supernova" is written and directed by Harry Macqueen. In it, Colin Firth plays Sam, a British concert pianist, and Stanley Tucci plays Tusker. It's an odd name.
WELDON: But - Tusker, an American novelist. Tusker has recently been diagnosed with early onset dementia. And they're taking a trip in what they would call a campervan, but we'll call an RV. Bob, what did you think of the movie?
MONDELLO: Well, it was interesting. I have the disadvantage or the advantage of having seen four movies about dementia in the last three weeks.
WELDON: It's a bumper crop, yeah.
MONDELLO: That's a lot. It's kind of interesting, I mean, to look at all these different takes on it. I would describe this as a gentler movie about this subject than most of the others and a more sort of warming one because their relationship is so terrific in it, and that helps to color the way that you see what's going on. I did like this one. I didn't like it to excess. I thought it was interesting as hell. And it isn't centrally - or at least for me, it isn't centrally about dementia, which kind of helps me to get into it. Listen - I've got a deal with this. My dad experienced sort of Parkinson's-related dementia toward the end of his life. So I have been through some of this, and it ain't easy.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, I worry from the description we gave and the fact that we are getting this glut of dementia movies, that people are going to think they know exactly what this film is. And I would say this film is a more intimate, much more restrained version of the film you think you're going to go see. You keep seeing the lesser film that this one keeps threatening to devolve into, kind of hovering at the edges. But, you know, we talk a lot on this show about sentiment versus sentimentality. Sentiment is authentic feeling that's been earned; sentimentality is reaching for it, using cheap tricks to pull the audience's heartstrings.
WELDON: There is a scene early on, when Tusker walks away from the RV. Sam goes driving after him, trying to find him along this country road. He stops. He sees Tusker through the windshield. He gets out and tries to retrieve him. And Harry Macqueen's camera stays in that RV. We're not up with them in that embrace, among the relief and the tears and the whispered assurances. We are still back in the RV looking out at them because Harry Macqueen is an actor, as well as a director. I think that's important because he trusts these actors. You trust these two leads to do what that scene is doing.
WELDON: Just in the slump of their shoulders and the way they kind of collapse into each other - from a distance, we see it. Now, if this film was just these two dudes go tootling around the Lake District reminiscing, that's not a story; that's a vignette. That's a character study. I would have been fine with it because it's these two actors, frankly. But there is a conflict that gets introduced that takes all the stuff that's simmering below the surface for the first two-thirds of the film and brings it out, and I thought that conflict was more overt and more showy than the stuff that preceded it. But I understand why you would do it. I mean, you've got these two muscle cars.
WELDON: You don't want to keep them up on blocks for your entire movie, right?
WELDON: You don't just want to drive them to the grocery store. You want to give them something to dig into. So I didn't mind it, although I thought it kind of threw the balance of the story off a little bit.
MONDELLO: Well, I actually - I found that section of it a little bit of a relief because, for a bit there, you're watching people not dealing with the issue. And look - these guys are so terrific, and they are apparently good friends in real life, which makes a difference because they are - you know, their warmth comes across all the way through, and their feeling for each other comes across all the way through. And I think what - you sort of settle into the notion - OK, well, this can just go on - right? - which is that is unfortunately not the case. Because dementia has a sort of an endgame, any story about dementia is actually going to be sort of tight. It is going to head towards a catharsis of sorts.
MONDELLO: It is - it has to go that way. And because you know that, the quirks, the twists are everything. And I think each - what's interesting to me is that each of the four movies I've seen this month take a different approach to making the twist interesting. And I think this one does a very successful job of linking you to these two characters and caring about where they're going, where their relationship is going.
WELDON: Right. You mentioned that they are very good friends in real life, Firth and Tucci. Apparently, they had kind of slotted themselves into the opposite roles, and they were rehearsing the opposite roles for this film as they went through, and then they switched not at the last minute but midway through. And I think they probably, if they switch it around, if they were playing opposite parts, they probably could have captured the same sense of intimacy, which is really what makes this film stand out for me.
WELDON: But I don't know if they would have found the same grace notes because they seem so ideally suited to these roles. These actors seem - I mean, Firth is so at once really soulful but also circumspect because he is hiding something. He's hiding a fear that he won't be able to deal with this. We've seen him do the stiff-upper-lip thing a lot. It's good to see him do a role where you can see that stiff upper lip quiver a bit.
WELDON: I think Tucci gets a much tougher role because it's got - if you're an actor, it's got to be so tempting to go bigger, showier, more maudlin. But every choice he makes, struggling with his condition, is small. He forgets the word for triangle, and it passes in a moment because he's playing a character with the emotional intelligence to hide it as well as he can. And that is a tough needle to thread, and he threads it perfectly.
MONDELLO: Yeah, that wonderful moment where he's meeting - is it Colin Firth's sister?
WELDON: Mmm hmm.
MONDELLO: And says something on the order of, what was your name again?
MONDELLO: Something like that. And then, you know, really - you realize quickly it's a joke. She realizes it's a joke. And it's kind of a relief that it's - that he's joking about it. I think in Tucci's case particularly, when you come to playing broad, he's done that in "The Hunger Games" and things like that with characters which - who read gay, for heaven's sakes. I mean, you know, like, they're - I don't know if that was ever made specific in "The Hunger Games," but there was certainly no question in my head. And Colin Firth has done big before, but I think the reserve that you're talking about - I think of that as a British thing anyway. But he's good at it. And it's lovely to see.
These guys - you know, it's interesting to me that they've both played gay characters in other films and seem to feel comfortable with it and that the times have changed in a way in that the world is less comfortable with straight actors playing gay, playing trans, playing all kinds of other things of that sort.
WELDON: And I really struggled with that. But here's my thinking - I didn't come to this film because it was a gay couple. I didn't come to this film certainly because it was a dementia story because - oish (ph) - I'm - my mom's dealing with that right now. It's the last thing I want to think about.
WELDON: And also, I'm in a 20-plus relationship with a man, and this has been a year of thinking about mortality in a much more direct way. And the stuff this film brings up, it doesn't sit well, doesn't sit easily.
WELDON: But I came to this film because of Tucci and Firth. I wanted to see these two play together in the same sandbox. I mean, I guess I give it special dispensation for that fact, if I'm coming to a thing for the actors and not the roles they play. But, yeah, it's something that a lot of critics are going to talk about, a lot of people who watch it are going to talk about. And there's something else going on here. We've seen this story told before with straight couples, heterosexual couples. One thing that makes this film stand out for me is the sheer novelty. Like, there are precious few films where gay men of a certain age are dealing with non-AIDS-related mortality.
MONDELLO: Right, right.
WELDON: Just regular old mortality. We get lots of AIDS narratives, and they're important, and they make a statement. But this is about something more - much more prosaic. And something interesting happens when you experience the story, how everybody involved experiences the story, when it's - if this was a heterosexual couple, there'd be something hiding in the back of everyone's mind that the story would have to acknowledge, the actors, the director and the audience would have to acknowledge, which is - even tacitly - the traditional gender role thing, where, oh, he's taking care of her.
WELDON: Or she's taking care of him. Well, that's - all that nonsense, that crap, that useless crap that is so baked into the culture, we don't get it here in the same way.
MONDELLO: That is an excellent point. You're absolutely right.
WELDON: Well, what we see here is this relationship, these two men and the shifting power dynamics in this relationship. We see it more clearly, I think. So am I saying we should only make films about queer couples? I mean, I'm not not saying it.
WELDON: But you get what I'm saying. The other thing is that these are two - we have to acknowledge this. These are two very successful, very privileged gay men of a certain age. I wondered, why are they both in the arts? And then I realized, OK, well, it was probably a lot easier for two men in the arts to live openly as a gay couple in, if they were in Thatcher's Britain or in Reagan's America when they came together.
WELDON: So I'm not excusing the fact that these are two very privileged white cis gay men, but, like, the story covers its tracks, I guess I would say,
MONDELLO: Yeah. It is refreshing in a way to see a movie in which the the fact of the characters being gay is - it's not quite irrelevant to the story, but it doesn't play in the same way that - for instance, I mean, this week, I've been thinking a lot about Christopher Plummer. When he won his Oscar for a picture called "Beginners," in which he plays an elderly man who comes out to his family, that was regarded as courageous, and that fact almost overwhelmed the reception to the picture. He was terrific in it, but it was courageous of him to play a gay character. That's no longer - that isn't there anymore.
WELDON: Right, right. I think we are both a conditional positive on this film.
MONDELLO: That's fair. Absolutely.
WELDON: Especially when you compare it to the glut that's out there right now. So we want to know what you think about "Supernova," which is now on VOD. Find us on facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Bob, thank you for being here. It's always great to see you.
MONDELLO: It was great to see you.
WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you've got a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we will see you all tomorrow.
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