It's taken the writer-director Harry Macqueen six years to follow up his finely honed 2014 debut Hinterland, but then a quiet patience is emerging as one of this filmography's uppermost virtues. Hinterland watched on as two old friends set out from London to Cornwall for a weekend away, and gently probed the direction their relationship was heading in. Supernova, which carries Macqueen northwards, hinges on the between-times of a road trip to the Lake District, undertaken by two men of a certain age. In the driver's seat: Sam (Colin Firth), a classical pianist of renown enough to cause a mini-kerfuffle at a service station, as Firth's appearance at any Welcome Break likely would. Alongside him: his American partner Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a novelist caught in an extended downtime between books. In a bed in the back of the pair's motorhome: Ruby, a flatulent dog. The bickering going on upfront tells us these are men who've been in love for a long time - they're life-partners - yet the deathly panic on Sam's face after Tusker vanishes at one rest stop suggests the pair are also attempting to circumnavigate some issue. The panic hardly subsides once a visibly confused Tusker, retrieved and returned to the van, reveals he's intentionally left his dementia meds at home. Once again, Macqueen heads out not specifically to gawp at the scenery - though his seasoned cinematographer Dick Pope captures plenty to fill the frame and enchant the eye - but to consider how we mere mortals make our way through it: how we hold each other up, nudge one another along, step in whenever a loved one stumbles or falters. Macqueen's destination, again, is far less important than his journey; his real interest lies in how we travel, and with whom.
How we care, too, for Supernova will almost certainly endure as the year's pre-eminent portrait of caring, in both its smallest and most profound iterations. What's unusual about this portrait is that it centres middle-aged gay men: one deploying a writer's waspish wit to keep that ghastly thing sentiment at bay, the other played by the posterboy for English emotional diffidence. Yet Macqueen has a gift for dramatising the notionally simple business of companionship. The big setpiece, atypically positioned at the film's heart, is a party scene in which Sam finds himself having to read a birthday tribute that the incapacitated Tusker has written, and alights upon an appreciable definition of intimacy, doubly poignant for being communicated in our socially distanced context: "A comforting arm in a lonely moment... a bed for the night... someone to share a bottle with." What Hinterland suggested, and Supernova now confirms, is that Macqueen also has the sharpest of ears for awkward (and thus characteristically British) small talk. Watch Firth's peerless flinch as a fellow partygoer floats a question that lands too close to the problem at hand, and carries Sam closer to the exit. Exactly as modest as its £8,000 means, Hinterland sometimes lapsed into first-movie tentativeness, but it also outlined an authorial approach in which what's not said within a relationship - those half-formed thoughts, those sentences left hanging in the air - becomes as forceful as that which is. The new film opens with the dying of a celestial light (Tusker's an amateur astronomer, we soon learn) and primes us to expect the end of a long-running conversation, but the dramatic tension stems from the fact neither party is keen or willing to initiate that endgame. Instead, they leave notes, for themselves and one another, not wanting to be too great a burden, not wanting to consider what, if anything, they'll be leaving behind.
The film permits no such doubt: a lot here burns bright in the mind, above all two exceptional performances. Let's face it: Firth and Tucci are such troupers they'd probably always tessellate in some way. The foremost achievement of Macqueen's direction was to get them to tessellate this well. Supernova represents a markedly bigger film than Hinterland - it has stars, expensive soundtrack cues, a publicity budget - but it's been managed in such a way as to preserve the core of intimacy that made the earlier film so touching. That, in turn, allows Firth and Tucci to work up a relationship that utterly convinces, that in any other situation you'd say had been built to last - a meshing of distinct personalities that has only made both parties stronger. Firth seems a stone or two heavier than usual in his wet weather gear, making Sam a rock off which his travelling companion's impish barbs bounce. But as the landscape they pass through illustrates, even rocks can erode and crumble. This is a film that understands both the weight of carrying someone you love, and the fear that follows at the thought of letting go. In its final third, Supernova calls a halt to the prevarication, and forces everyone - Sam, Tusker, you, me - to consider what would happen if grim circumstance meant we had to part. It's another quiet masterstroke of structure, this, mercilessly paring down the film's constituent elements until it's just two men in a holiday cottage on a melancholy hill, looking one another (and death) in the eye, and obliging us to contemplate our mortality alongside them. That may sound morbid, and possibly too close to home for some, but Macqueen finally asserts how important it is that we get to choose the manner of our passing, and he grants us the best possible company in which to instigate such a conversation. In a suitably stellar flash of lucidity late on, Tusker muses "Being sad something's gone just means it was great while it was there. Right?" Suffice to say I was heartbroken indeed when Supernova was gone.
Supernova opens in selected cinemas from Friday.