Posted on Wed, Sep. 14, 2005
'North Country' a film festival favorite
ENTERTAINMENT: The movie has yet to face its toughest critics: the Iron Rangers on whose lives and homes it was based.
BY SARAH HENNING
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
TORONTO - Audiences at the "North Country" premiere gave the film a standing ovation. Praise was heaped on the actors. The script was called "inspirational."
Wearing a black evening gown, star Charlize Theron hugged director Niki Caro and wept with elation when the lights went up during Monday's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
Shown for the first time Monday and again Tuesday, "North Country" won over the notoriously particular film crowd.
But Iron Rangers will be the toughest critics of this film when it's released nationwide in October. After all, the script is based on their real-life struggles with sexual harassment at Eveleth Mines. The film shows the world some of the most degrading things that have happened in their communities. The characters are modeled after them, their friends, their kids.
As the Hollywood crew descended on the Iron Range to shoot the Warner Bros. movie in February, residents said they feared their accents and way of life would be mocked, or that all miners would be stereotyped as abusive Neanderthals.
"North Country" doesn't lampoon the Iron Range, nor does it lambaste all Range miners. But it doesn't candy-coat the nasty things done to the female miners, either. Some abuse scenes in the movie are so unflinching, audience members often gasped with shock.
Like "Norma Rae" and "Silkwood," this film focuses on what people will put up with to keep their jobs in an economically desperate place, and what happens when someone finally says enough is enough.
Toronto actors Kristine Marchese and Natalie Robitaille agreed "North Country" was the best film they'd seen at the festival so far. They had watched more than a dozen other films at the festival, which includes premieres of "Proof" with Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins and "Walk the Line," the Johnny Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix.
"I think more films like 'North Country' need to be done to keep reminding us what other women have sacrificed so that we can have what we have now," Robitaille said. "It's especially important to realize that this did not happen all that long ago."
"North Country" is inspired by Lois Jenson and her 1984 class-action suit against Eveleth Mines. The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks. They're triggered by Josey Aimes' courtroom testimony as she and her lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) try to convince the judge that her sexual harassment case against the mine should be a class action.
The reticent, sensitive Josey has just returned to live with her parents on the Iron Range after ditching her abusive husband. She can't afford to feed her children, Sammy and Karen, on hairdresser wages. Her friend, a sassy, authoritative mineworker named Glory (Francis McDormand), suggests that Josey apply at the mine.
From her first day, Josey is treated maliciously.
The film confronts the ways in which the female miners were brutalized in real life. All over the mine there is sexually explicit graffiti that cartoons women's bodies and sex acts. A woman finds ejaculate on a sweater in her locker; another finds a sex toy in her lunch box. Then there are the physical abuses, from "friendly" grabs to physical violence.
The film portrays the mine as a filthy workplace in every sense of the word. But the script also addresses all that the mine affords its workers. In several scenes, Theron's character wells with pride at owning her own home for the first time, and being able to buy gifts for her children.
The main characters are not one-dimensional. Even Josey's constant harasser Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner) gets a sympathetic moment while on the witness stand. Some of the women are just as lewd as the men.
The main male characters are all either supportive of Josey from the beginning or have a change of heart.
Glory's boyfriend Kyle (Sean Bean) nurses her through Lou Gehrig's disease and is a father figure for Josey's teenage son. Josey's father Hank (Richard Jenkins) gives a rousing speech at the union hall that brought applause at both screenings in Toronto.
"There were some really bad guys, but there were good guys, too," said Alex Bikhazi of Toronto, who saw Monday night's screening.
Increasingly, the harassment isn't worth the paycheck to Josey. She tries to report several incidents to management and is told to shut up and "take it like a man." Inspired by seeing the Anita Hill trial on TV, she quits and files a lawsuit against the company. The film climaxes with a courtroom scene.
Even though the names on the water towers were digitally removed in "North Country," Iron Rangers will recognize much of their surroundings on screen.
There are three scenes at the Eveleth Hippodrome, including a high school hockey game with lots of close-ups on locally hired extras. The former Eveleth Junior High with its mine-themed mural in the hallway could not be mistaken for anything else. The Eveleth Auditorium is less distinct in the union-hall scene, but here again, the scene is flush with locals.
The R rating will prevent most of the child extras from seeing the film until they are adults. But rest assured, the local kids do get their time in the sun. They include girls kneeling for First Communion at Resurrection Church in Eveleth, and Jeff Johnson of Fayal Township, who is the hockey double for the actor who played Sammy.
Actors developed their accents after listening to tapes of actual Minnesotans. The accent is there but it's not satirical or overdone, as it has been in earlier films such as "Fargo" or "Drop Dead Gorgeous."
The "North Country" vernacular is typical of what's found in any film about blue-collar workers: Generally poor grammar and lots of swearing.
Probably the most omniscient character is the mine itself. Caro caresses the stark landscape around the mines with frequent aerial views, making the buildings seem alien and coldly beautiful.
Sarah Woolf of Toronto was impressed by the film's cinematography, and she was equally enthralled with its theme.
"It wasn't emotionally overboard, but there was a strong message," she said. "If you get up and fight as a group, you can actually make changes in the world around you. It's a message we need to hear more often."
© 2005 Duluth News Tribune and wire service sources.