They say, “Write what you know.” So Kristin Scott Thomas does with her directorial debut North Star. Co-written by John Micklethwait, the film centers on three sisters returning home to send their mother down the aisle for the third time. Her first two husbands? Best friends who ultimately died while serving their country in the Navy. And neither Victoria (Sienna Miller), Katherine (Scarlett Johansson), nor Georgina (Emily Beecham) have ever let go.
It’s the same fate Thomas herself lived through. Her biological father died in a flying accident a handful of years before her stepfather did the same. Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that her fictionalization of the same focuses on one daughter above the others––just not the one you might expect. While one of them is a famous actress (Victoria), it’s Katherine who takes the spotlight. A Navy captain who followed in her dads’ footsteps, she’s taking the notion of a third father hard. Not because Jeff (James Fleet) isn’t a good man, but because she can’t help thinking his mere presence erases everyone who came before him.
We see it in her memories (depicted via heartfelt black-and-white animation) of heroic men leaving to die. We see it in the way she acts with her sisters and the strained relationship she has with her son Marcus––presumedly because she thinks distance protects him from the pain she endured (in case she also doesn’t come home) even though the resulting estrangement does as much damage or more anyway. Katherine fears conflict. She fears the worst. And she’s neglected the happiness her mother (Thomas’ Diana) refuses to be without.
All the sisters have their own response to their shared tragedy. Victoria sleeps around and lets rich older man buy her affection. Georgina lets her husband sleep around because she wants her children to have the stability she didn’t. Add Victoria’s own rebellious son to the mix and these kids are left to fend for themselves through the suffering of their mothers. You almost wonder if these sisters had it easier because they could keep the image of their fathers pristine, whereas their children only see their flaws. Only Diana knows the truth. Only she has the proper hindsight to realize that nothing means more than visible and true love.
Here’s the thing, though. Thomas builds her entire film around this truth. As the sisters’ lives grow more and more complicated on their mother’s wedding day, you can feel everything coming to a head. Because it’s not that they are bad people. They just won’t get out of their own ways due to feeling beholden to a reality born from the minds of children. Only Diana can set them straight––and set them straight she does. It’s a wonderful monologue at the graves of her deceased husbands that (way too late) reminds her daughters who the real hero was and how life doesn’t stop just because you’re sad.
Is everything that happens before this scene enough to sustain a 90-minute movie? If you look at the consensus so far, the answer might be a resounding “No.” I’m not so sour on the experience myself. The whole may ultimately prove unmemorable in its obvious machinations towards that climax, but the performances and familial comedy mostly land. I could do without the manipulative trickery of naming Freida Pinto’s character Jack and the odd choice to vilify another character by way of kink-shaming rather than the crime of adultery itself, but neither issue has any real bearing on the story.
I guess that’s the real problem, then: very little does. The other characters surrounding the main trio are there to provoke and surprise. They are present to make these sisters continue to fall prey to their own shortcomings while also providing the mirror with which to finally break free from the vicious cycle consuming them. And the eventual turnaround in generic rom-com fashion that makes up the epilogue proves super-fast and convenient in a way that undercuts the poignancy of what Thomas delivers in her emotionally educational moment of tough love.
So while there’s a lot to like onscreen (my only real gripe is the decision to make the star the only non-English actor and thus demand we focus on her faltering accent), it doesn’t quite come together as more than a thin facsimile of what was surely a powerfully cathartic release for Thomas. Whatever failings the writing might possess, though, I do think the direction and tone are solid. Sometimes personal stories like this just don’t quite translate to formulaic mainstream-appeal storytelling. Craft and intent simply couldn’t quite push it across the finish line.
North Star premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.