If there has been one trend that came out of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it’s that a startling number of movies were directed by actors, many of which were directorial debuts. While some of them have been received very well like Anna Kendrick’s Woman of the Hour, others were a bit of a misfire, like Chris Pine’s disastrous Poolman. Joining the latter, unfortunately, is Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning actor Kristin Scott Thomas’ directorial debut North Star. The 95-minute feature inspired by Thomas’ own life starring Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, and Emily Beecham means well across its narrative rooted in familial dysfunction, but it never quite comes together for a coherent marriage of drama and heart.
Filled to the brim with Academy Award and BAFTA Award nominees, North Star is a very personal work for Thomas who adapted the tragic story of losing her father and stepfather within a few years of each other when she was a young girl. Co-writing the experience alongside screenwriter John Micklethwait, Thomas has been wanting to direct this story for a long time, telling Deadline last year that using her childhood memories as a springboard for the film was exactly the path she wanted to go down for her debut. Though the film is also the third time Johansson and Thomas have played mother and daughter on the big screen (after The Horse Whisperer and The Other Boleyn Girl), there is something amiss about their chemistry and connection this time around that leaves a sense of detachment from these characters.
‘North Star’ Frames Its Grief Through Scarlett Johansson
The film follows three sisters from very different walks of life on the eve of a momentous event: their twice-widowed mother Diana Frost (Thomas) is getting married for the third time. Returning to their home in the English countryside for a shaky reunion, all three of the sisters have explicit relationship issues that stem from the complex feelings left behind by their two fathers — men they once idolized but never got a chance to understand after they died while serving in the British Royal Navy. It’s in these complicated sentiments that each project their own issues.
As the weekend unfolds unexpectedly, we come to learn more about Katherine (Johansson) in that she is a captain in the Royal Navy following in her biological father’s footsteps and is soon to take on a new role as a captain. She is also a very absent mother to her son with her partner, Jack (Freida Pinto). Trying her hardest to avoid interactions with the two of them, Katherine’s return home is an emotional one that feeds into her childhood trauma and a secret she is keeping from her two sisters, Victoria (Miller) and Georgina (Beecham). As the three are forced to reassess their childhood, the conflicts they come across together help them to recognize the decisions they need to make in order to move on.
However, it’s through Johansson’s character that Thomas leads the film’s underlying narrative of grief and loss via beautifully animated black-and-white flashbacks. It’s this element that feels rather out of place with the film’s established tone. While it’s a creative way for the character to connect to her younger self and highlight for the audience her innocence amid events that were not so black and white, it lacks a connective association to the rest of the film’s tone and is misaligned in the writing.
‘North Star’ Lacks Chemistry Among Its Star-Studded Cast
In understanding Katherine’s relationships with her siblings, we learn that Victoria, who is also the eldest, is one of the more bohemian-type characters in the film. Sienna Miller is good at playing the blasé, glamorous actress content in milking her family’s tragedy for talk show fodder just to establish a career. Perhaps the best part of North Star, she gives her finest to the role even if she doesn’t have that much of a sparkling chemistry with her co-stars. In understanding Victoria, we see her character has been plotted for comic relief across the film, but it isn’t enough of a sharp play nor that funny. Making matters worse, the film tries too hard with what little humor it has and only manages to elicit a few chuckles at best.
Beecham (Into the Badlands) as Georgina, the youngest Frost daughter and a palliative care nurse, is a delight and gives her all to a character receiving the short end of the stick in her marriage and frankly, the script. While Georgina is quite resentful of her older sisters for their highly visible success and feels her life has been stagnant, Beecham convinces us of the pain her character endures on a daily basis due to a dwindling marriage and the upset she feels having never known her biological father and Diana’s second husband. However, the same can’t be said for the three of them being a cohesive unit. When watching the dynamics between Johansson, Miller, and Beecham, it really is hard to see any kind of chemistry between the three of them. Individually, they’re OK and provide naturalness to their characters, but there is rarely any unspoken affection existing between them in the scenes they share, particularly the scene when all of them meet up with a private investigator to uncover the truth about Georgina’s philandering husband. The end result is empty and leaves the relationship feeling more disjointed.
Tragically, a lot of their relationship feels put on — especially in watching Johansson’s performance, which feels miscast, too. While Thomas manages to pull out solid performances from Miller and Beecham, Johansson doesn’t feel like a fit and this isn’t even about her English accent that tragically, pops in and out in a span of an hour-and-a-half. This discernable lack of chemistry between the sisters moves into their relationship with Thomas’ Diana, which feels like an utter disconnect, making the film not work at all. Moreover, the estranged relationship between Johansson and Pinto is not convincing enough, which is a bit frustrating to watch because it makes you wonder if it’s the actors or the writing coming up short.
‘North Star’ Is as Fractured as Its Family
For a film that should have led the way with an all-star cast and a story that is significant enough to share, North Star is a dull movie filled with some very English film clichés and tropes that make it predictable and boring. In recognizing how none of the daughters can have a healthy relationship if they don’t let go of the men in their memories, the film had promise and a real path to a Terms of Endearment kind of drama. But it’s the execution, whether through direction or writing that just fell short. Aligning itself with the traditional drama that feels common and overused, North Star is the type of film where everyone says what they want at the end without any constructive development between the film’s most important points that should have left an impactful message. Instead, it ends up tying things together with a nice little bow and becomes forgettable, which is an injustice to Thomas’ memories and inspiration.
While Thomas does her best in directing the feature, which earns quality points for cinematography and in bringing out some flavorful performances from Sienna Miller and Emily Beecham, there is a lot of nuance lacking between the writing and its subsequent interactions among the cast. The pacing is quite bumpy and makes for some very tiresome moments amid very unbalanced writing. Not to mention, the comedy feels ill-placed at times and while it’s meant to soften the blow of some of the drama, it doesn’t complement it. Additionally, the movie does nothing to set Thomas apart from her director peers as it’s too mediocre. From the film’s conclusion, it’s hard to believe one pep talk at the graveyard with their mother laying out flowers for her late husbands solved everything for the sisters and yet, that’s where we are moments before the finale. In North Star’s attempt to be sincere and heartfelt, everything feels weirdly prosaic and unduly sentimental. It all makes for an immensely forgettable film.
THE BIG PICTURE
- North Star comes from a very personal place, but it never comes together in a compelling way.
- Despite its star-studded cast, the chemistry between the actors, particularly Scarlett Johansson, is lacking.
- The film suffers from predictable writing, unbalanced pacing, and misplaced comedy, resulting in a forgettable and mediocre experience.
North Star had its World Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.