Kristin Scott Thomas’s first film as a director has the most beautiful production design in a long time, designed by the great Andrew McAlpine, who did Jane Campion’s long ago The piano. Scott Thomas also plays Diana, who is about to get married for the third time and brings her daughters – star trio Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller and Emily Beecham – home for the wedding. And this home! It’s a beautiful, cozy English country house with colorful walls or botanical wallpaper in every room, flowering vines hanging from the roof and an extensive green garden. It’s not a compliment to say that the design is one of the first things that catch your eye, as this look is crucial to how inviting and vibrant this beautiful film feels.
It’s a shame that the script, written by Scott Thomas with journalist John Micklethwaite, isn’t what it could have been. With too many familiar tropes, North Star feels like a smaller variation on one of Richard Curtis’s lovely, elegant comic dramas, without the sharp dialogue. But there’s still a lot to like about this heartfelt story about an adult family coming to terms with their relationships and the past.
Predictable but beautiful Richard Curtis Lite.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Pour: Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, Emily Beecham, Kristin Scott Thomas, Freida Pinto
Director: Kristin Scott Thomas
Writer: Kristin Scott Thomas, John Micklethwait
1 hour 35 minutes
In the introductory scenes, we discover that Johansson plays Katherine, an uptight captain in the British Royal Navy (yes, with an English accent). She ignores the text message from her partner Jack, who urgently needs to talk. Beecham is nervous and unsure. Georgina, a nurse, suspects her husband is cheating. And Miller is the confident middle sister Victoria, a famous actress now living in America and leaving behind a long line of old lovers. Victoria’s intro provides a succinct exposition using a clunky device as she recounts her family history on a talk show. Her mother’s first husband, a military pilot and the father of Katherine and Victoria, was killed in the Falklands War. She married his best friend, a fellow pilot and Georgina’s father, who was killed in Bosnia, leaving Diana to raise three young daughters.
There’s an autobiographical touch here that explains how Scott Thomas brings such intimacy to her performance. Her own mother’s first husband, a pilot, died and she married another pilot who died five years later. The dedication of the film is “In memory of my fathers”.
Actors who turn to directing are prepared to be great with other actors, and Scott Thomas certainly is. Johannson, Miller and Beecham convince us that they are sisters, even if the characters are different. All three play their roles with naturalness and a strong sense of affection that is unspoken but clearly present in the family.
And it’s a pretty bossy family. Without asking, Victoria hires an investigator to pursue Georgina’s husband. Diana urges Katherine to marry Jack, who has wanted this for some time and is staying home to care for their young son while Katherine is away on a ship for months.
However, the family’s uniqueness is undermined by predictable scenes, including an outdoor wedding dinner and the mischief of Diana’s grandchildren. Scott Thomas’ assured direction, Yves Belanger’s lively cinematography and Joan Sobel’s elegant editing make the film mildly captivating, if rarely surprising.
It tries to create surprises, but not very effectively. A rich man pursuing Victoria, whom she calls Le Grand Fromage, lands a helicopter on the lawn, crashing the wedding but not adding much to the film. Jack’s character is unexpected and the urgent need to talk to Katherine doesn’t lead to the breakup we think is coming. But the real reason is a ridiculous plot twist.
Finally, big emotional scenes take place. The sisters argue and let go of years of guilt, resentment and secrets. Scott Thomas, gliding through the area with his usual aplomb, gets a big, exciting scene towards the end, and it’s one of the best written in the film. Diana tells her daughters to grow up and stop idolizing the fathers who, in her opinion, are frozen in their perfect youth. The themes of time, memory and coming to terms with the past really come into play late in the film.
Scott Thomas’ breakthrough came from Curtis Four weddings and a funeral, which may simply be a fact and not a reason for the similarly deft mix of drama, comedy, and warmth towards the characters. In any case, Curtis is a good role model. North Star Maybe it’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s no small feat to make a film that makes you want to enter its world and spend time there.