Directed by Niki Caro
North Country is more than a little bit confounding. Niki Caro clearly knows how to direct, but she is as self-indulgent here as she was economical in Whale Rider. Charlize Theron gives a solid performance, but no more strong that the underrated performances she gave before she won an Academy Award. The supporting cast is excellent, but they are often used as pawns of obviousness when convenient for a lazy screenwriting effort.
The movie is a courtroom drama that doesn't arrive in the courtroom, except for a few flashforwards, until its last 20 minutes, by which point we have spent so much time with the issue, drilled into our heads, that it has less momentousness than waiting for a verdict on Law & Order. That subject, by the way, is sexual harassment. And, unfortunately, the film doesn't quite seem to get that we are now decades away from the early introduction of women into the most macho workplaces and the only film that is really going to be effective is one that is smarter and more insightful than a simple retelling of the ugliness that occurred.
Ironically, this film makes me more appreciative of Brokeback Mountain, since at least that film's self-pitying period metaphor is preserved like beef jerky in the heat of romantic notions.
Charlize Theron could get an Oscar nomination for this role, though it is in the mold of "women we are used to giving awards to give good performances" and nothing revelatory. She is strong and her eyes are rimmed with tears and redness for much of the movie. But this is not the spectacular response to Monster - playing both high drama and her natural beauty, not hiding behind make-up - that it occurred to me she may have thought it was when the film was made. I have always thought Ms. Theron was penalized for her beauty, even in performances like Mighty Joe Young and The Devil's Advocate, where she really tore it up even if being over shadowed by a monkey or Al Pacino at his scenery-chewing height. She is up to her standards here, but the movie lets her down a bit.
Frances McDormand is, as always, brilliant. Though she is turned into a movie trick, moving from an apparent arthritic condition to full-blown Lou Gehrig's Disease in what seems like months. Handicaps are rarely a friend to good drama, in most cases creating more but more false emotion in a Pavlovian exercise. And here, the powerful McDormand is reduced to grunts and tension-breaking foul language, keeping her from being a true counterpoint to Theron's ambitions for good in the film.
Sean Bean has very little screen time, but one or two effective speeches, albeit stumbling a bit through a mountain accent.
Sissy Spacek has not gone all Duvall on us, but she is woefully underused here, though Richard Jenkins as her husband gets the chance to deliver the most impressive of the supporting performances, skillfully playing a wide range of emotions in his role as Theron's character's father.
Ms. Caro has a bad habit of including far too much scenery for the sake of her drama. Here is a hard-bitten, rough and tumble look at a woman in a mining town for whom mining is the only choice if she wants to stay and pay for the raising of her children without simply luring a husband. But as perpetually dirty as everyone in the movie is, you don't feel enough of that edge. (Michelle Monaghan, Torontoing this film and in the very glammy sexy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is fine, but remains a cipher thanks to an underwritten role that seems to think that not wearing make-up equals a harrowing performance. Monaghan is definitely camera ready and it is a trip seeing her and Theron, who blew onto the scene as sexy and naked in Two Days In The Valley as Monaghan gets in KKBB, in the same film... almost like the now appreciated Theron passing the tall vixen who wants serious roles torch along.)
Perhaps Ms. Caro had the advantage of exotica with Whale Rider, a culture that was fascinating on the face of it for much of the rest of the world. But we've seen miners in movies before. And beautiful photography usually signals shallowness of story. Ms. Caro might have had the good fortune of following Bennett Miller's lead in Capote, with the occasional piece of breathtaking visual imagery, balanced with the intimacy of the character scenes. But it has come too late for her. You can almost here folks saying, "How can we let that amazing shot of white smoke billowing out of the smokestacks go?," even after there have been ten similarly beautiful and marginally informative shots.
And the courtroom sequence, once it comes, is a head slapper. People give speeches from the gallery... displays of Perry Mason lawyering are on display... and trying not to give away too much, I will just say, didn't John Belushi put an end to some of these theatricals with his "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" speech 28 years ago in Animal House. No, you are not Spartacus. Sit the hell down.
All that said, half of North Country feels like a really great movie. It is the rare case where whittling down the 123 minute running time to about 100 minutes really could help the movie. There are actually a couple scenes that seem to be missing (Spacey and Jenkins in a hotel room, a speech by Monaghan on her life as a beauty, perhaps a little more on Theron building her home which is so special to her.
And there probably should be something about the difference between being an "attractive" woman on the job at that time and being less "attractive" to male workers. I don't know whether the issue is real or not. Rape is an act of violence and does not just happen to models, and sexual harassment might be the same way. But the movie seems to skate on the issue, despite casting two excellent actresses who are twice the weight of Theron and Monaghan as the women - other than McDormand - who manage to frown and bear harassment. Of course harassment, like rape, is not acceptable under any circumstance. No one is asking for it. But the fact that the two most pestered women are the two youngest and "most attractive" is worthy of examination. And while Monaghan wears less and less make-up and stops making her hair look great, I would have liked to know more.
Also, there is one flashback that I really hated and I won't tell you about it here in detail as it is a major spoiler (one I anticipated - and most of you will - early in the first act), but what bothered me about the flashback is that it confirms for us, the audience, that a character is not lying about something. And it seems to me that the entire movie exists to discuss the issue of trust... not allowing name calling and smear tactics to change your judgment of others. Yet the movie doesn't trust us to feel that for ourselves, even though it later confirms the truth again in another way. And that's a shame since anyone who would doubt this truth is exactly the person who needs to be challenged by not being spoon fed.
So... mixed on Caro, but certainly still promising... positive of Theron, Jenkins and really all the performances, even when underwritten... and I liked a lot of the film. I just wish it was a little less "studio."
- David Poland