Riveting 'North Country' delves into sexual harassment and ultimately redemption at Minnesota iron mine
By ROGER MOORE
The Orlando Sentinel
The Iron Range of northern Minnesota is a barren tundra, a snowscape gouged by gaping wounds in the land, open pit mines worked by men as hard as their surroundings.
It's conservative, polka-listening, hockey-playing country. And it's a very strange place to set a national precedent for sexual harassment law.
But that's just what happened there in the 1980s.
Lois Jensen had a job where she wasn't wanted. The good ol' boys who worked with her had ways of letting her know that.
When she had had enough, she went to court and changed the American workplace forever.
"North Country" is a Norma Rae-styled version of that true story, a harrowing and depressing but in the end uplifting account of someone who needed a job so badly she was willing to endure things one can't name in a family newspaper just to work alongside people who wished her dead.
Charlize Theron finally cashes in some of that "Monster"-Oscar capital as Josey Aimes.
She's a single mom with a colorful sexual history and an abusive relationship she's fleeing when we meet her.
She has just brought her two kids back home to the range where she grew up.
But her hopes of getting on her feet and making a life for them are dashed by the lack of opportunity there.
Only her friend Glory (Frances McDormand) seems to be able to make it, and she's a miner.
Only the mine, the big local employer, pays enough to finance their version of the American Dream.
Josey's dad, played by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (from HBO's "Six Feet Under"), is a manager who doesn't want to see her in the mine, "taking jobs" away from men.
Her mom (Sissy Spacek) tries to mediate the growing rift between them.
And Josey needs her dad. The men in the mine are barely worthy of that label, "men." They harass, taunt and assault the few women there.
"Work hard, keep your mouth shut and take it like a man," the women are told. And they do.
But the guys push Josey too far, farther than you can imagine.
When Josey tries to fight the company, the harassers and the culture that protects them, she finds out how few friends she really has.
Glory is little help. Her female colleagues are scared into silence. Her own family won't stick up for her.
She's left with only a struggling lawyer (Woody Harrelson) at her side.
Niki Caro, the director of "Whale Rider," has made a classic underdog-vs.-the system story, rendered in the harsh blue-grays of a Minnesota winter.
The only visual relief from the hellish mine and drab, colorless houses is the brown courtroom.
Everything about the film, even the tunes selected for the soundtrack (Dylan's "Girl of the North Country" is one) reinforce that.
There's lots of melodrama -- Josey's son is furious at her for bringing this down on the family, Glory gets sick and her crippled husband (Sean Bean) tries to prop her up.
But Theron commits to the part the way she did for "Monster," letting the dirt, blood and fear show.
Her Minnesota accent pales next to McDormand, but McDormand ("Fargo") has had a lot more practice.
Harrelson has his first decent part in ages, but Spacek is merely stoic and symbolic. She's barely in the film.
The big turn is by Jenkins, a bit player with some 60 film and TV movie appearances behind him.
His character has the longest journey to take, from intolerance to understanding. And his big moment, at a union meeting, a place where he's respected and she is loathed, is eloquent, simple and moving.
Yes, this is Oscar bait for Theron, and she's wonderful in this sort of transformative role.
But it's Jenkins who is the soul of this piece, and of the country that has changed as the laws have changed. And Jenkins is the one who should get a nomination.GO!
'NORTH COUNTRY' • Featuring:Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, directed by Niki Caro • Where:Century Cinemas at Del Monte in Monterey, Century 14 in Salinas, Maya Cinemas in Salinas, Green Valley in Watsonville • Rating:R, for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language • Running time:123 minutes
Charlize Theron gets some respect from men
Iron Miner's Daughter
by ELLA TAYLOR
OCTOBER 21 - 27, 2005
Workin' in an iron mine, goin' down down
(Photo by Richard Foreman)
It's been a while since Hollywood unleashed a big ol' red-meat feminist melodrama, the kind in which a lissome A-lister clad head to toe in J.C. Penney socks it to the big guys on behalf of working women everywhere. I suspect the reasons for this go beyond the fact that, absent Lindsay Lohan's name on the marquee, only women of a certain age will pay money to see such passé — and essential — fare. Class and gender wars are, or ought to be, as urgent today as they ever were, but in public discourse they're neatly hidden behind those politically paralyzing, media-stoked terrors of random weather, flu pandemics and terrorism. Good on Warner Bros., then, for backing Niki Caro's North Country, though I doubt whether this fact-based yarn, about a Minnesota miner who slaps a sexual-harassment suit on her corporate employer, would ever have gotten off the ground without Charlize Theron attached.
Sophisticates will sniff at North Country. Inspired by a book by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler about a landmark 1980s class-action lawsuit, the movie is a slice of prime-cut populist theatrics, and none the worse for being headlined by Theron, even if she looks about as much like a Minnesota iron miner as I look like Charlize Theron. Short of the several pounds of makeup and serial-killer scowl she labored under for Monster, there's no tamping down Theron's radiant alabaster beauty or her physical grace. But for someone accustomed to kicking up her shapely heels for the Joffrey Ballet or swaying down a runway in Prada, Theron looks pretty damn persuasive in flannel shirts, a hardhat and liberal facial bruising (courtesy of a former husband who can't keep his fists to himself). Like many a female Oscar winner, Theron seems to have gotten better offers from perfume companies than from film studios since winning the Best Actress Oscar for Monster, but along with Julia Roberts, when cast in the right role she's one of the most earthy, forthright actresses working today. Which makes her a canny choice to play Josey Aimes, a single parent with a checkered romantic history, who nevertheless works up the guts to take on male-dominated unions and a giant corporation.
Given the trowel with which Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman pile on the grief for Josey, I'm guessing that her trials have been liberally fictionalized, though they're hardly implausible. In addition to her own shaky self-esteem and a shop floor full of threatened men who find it amusing to write “Cunt” on the bathroom walls in their own feces or slip rubber penises into lunch pails, Josey must contend with a stubbornly unsupportive father (the always dependable Richard Jenkins), a painfully submissive mother (Sissy Spacek), a teenage son (Thomas Curtis) who's furious at her for attracting negative attention, and, perhaps worst of all, her fellow woman workers, among them her friend Glory (played by Frances McDormand, who in another kind of movie business would have been cast as Josey), who fear that Josey's activism will cost them the queasy status quo they've carved out for themselves, rubber dicks and all.
Caro, who made the handsomely mounted Whale Rider, was smart enough to hire legendary cinematographer Chris Menges, whose naturalistic lighting brings an aching, majestic beauty to the frozen Northern Minnesota backdrop. Still, there's a TV-movie stiffness to North Country, which is conventionally structured by a courtroom drama that frames flashbacks to Josey's early life and her struggles with a former boyfriend (Jeremy Renner) who singles her out for particularly vicious reprisal. The temper of the times, with its virulent antifeminist backlash, is glaringly (if fittingly) flagged by television footage of Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas.
North Country is more Norma Rae than Erin Brockovich: You can't imagine Caro evoking the sheer, giddy fun of political combat the way Steven Soderbergh does, although Woody Harrelson is mischievously cast against type as Josey's hesitant has-been of a lawyer, while Sean Bean moves out of villain mode to give a quietly impressive performance as Glory's supportive husband. But North Country isn't reductive either; it doesn't divide neatly into beastly men and intrepid woman warriors, and Theron invests Josey's growth from a downtrodden loser into a fighter with a delicate vulnerability; you understand there's as much at stake in her fight with herself and her family as there is in her institutional battles. Without having read the book on which North Country is based, I find it difficult to believe that such an epic victory was won by one woman alone. Yet the movie's old-school feminism is true to its subject, and Theron proves charismatic enough to stand alone as an emblematic working-class heroine doing what she has to do without benefit of feminist theory. I'm even willing to forgive this rousing drama its coy, flirty ending, if only because its heroine has the grace not to drive her pickup truck off a cliff.
NORTH COUNTRY | Directed by NIKI CARO | Written by MICHAEL SEITZMAN | Based on the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law by CLARA BINGHAM and LAURA LEEDY GANSLER | Produced by NICK WECHSLER | Released by Warner Bros. Pictures | Citywide