Sony // 2009 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 26th, 2009
Based on the book by the bestselling author.
Editor's Note: This is a WalMart exclusive DVD release, available only in stores and at NoraRoberts.com.
Nora Roberts writes romance novels that seem to sell pretty well. That's was the extent of my knowledge when I sat down to watch the Lifetime adaptation of her book Northern Lights. I went in expecting iffy acting, crappy mystery, poor production values, and an unrealistically strong heroine. Instead, I was surprised by a decent, though thoroughly unremarkable, little mystery-romance hybrid. Although it will likely only appeal to a select group of people, Nora Roberts' Northern Lights isn't as bad as it could have been.
Northern Lights takes place in Lunacy, Alaska, a small town that's just got a new chief of police in the form of former big-city cop with a dark past Nate (Eddie Cibrian, Ugly Betty). During his first day on the job, some kids go missing on a local mountain, and when he and his deputy go to rescue them they find out the kids have discovered a body. It appears that fifteen years ago a man was killed and left on the mountain with a daughter, Meg (singer LeAnn Rimes), and her mother (Rosanna Arquette) back in Lunacy. They've been convinced he abandoned them, but that's apparently not the case, and Nate teams with Meg to find out who killed her father.
Let's dispense with one thing first: the mystery in Northern Lights is a total red herring. There are very few clues, everyone is a suspect, and the whole thing only gets solved thanks to a silly deus ex machina 10 minutes from the end of the film. There are almost no procedural elements, and most of the investigation consists of Nate and Meg saying that "the killer must be one of us" and generally interviewing the citizens of Lunacy with very little to go on. Someone else in the town is killed, and a dog is mutilated, but they're really just distractions.
Instead of focusing on the mystery, Northern Lights keeps the story on Meg and Nate. He's a cop who must come to grips with the fact that he got his partner killed, and she's the daredevil pilot who grew up without a father. They're both stock characters, him dark and brooding, her wild and impulsive, but their interactions, the ways they draw each other out, are fairly compelling. It also helps that they get to interact with a town full of stock characters like the uptight banker, the lovelorn schoolteacher, and the hotheaded laborer. Again, none of these characters are new or particularly compelling, but they're so familiar they work surprisingly well. More than that, the acting is better than I expected. With the lone exception of the emotional scene where Meg and her mother learn of Meg's father's death, the acting is above-average, especially from Rimes and Cibrian.
Production values aren't sky high, but there are some fun aerial shots and a scene involving a really intimidating bear. It appears that most of the film was shot in Canada, and that helps add a little bit of realistic climate to the story, lending some credibility to the small Alaskan town.
It all adds up to a mildly satisfying conclusion that won't surprise anyone but does tie everything up nicely.
As of this writing, the Nora Roberts movies made for Lifetime are only available at Wal-mart stores, and the overall package is about what you'd expect from a made-for-cable release. The video transfer is bright and clear, highlighting Alaska's white landscapes. The audio gets the job done with easily audible dialogue, and the subtitles are a plus. Fans looking for Ms. Roberts' input on Northern Lights will be disappointed, as there are no extras whatsoever on this disc.
I'd recommend a rental for fans of Roberts' books, but since it can only be bought, not rented, I can't say there's enough about the disc to recommend a purchase. Hopefully fans will be able to catch reruns on cable before deciding if they want to own the film.
Guilty of mediocrity, which all things considered isn't that bad.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated