multiple reviews - the usual minor spoilerish info contained within
Review: Cast Redeems 'North Country' By CHRISTY LEMIRE, AP Movie Critic
Charlize Theron doesn't stand on a table in the middle of a factory holding up a cardboard sign in "North Country," but you suspect that she could at any moment.
The film from "Whale Rider" director Niki Caro, about one woman who fought the horrors of sexual harassment at a northern Minnesota iron mine by filing an unprecedented class-action lawsuit, definitely has that inspirational "Norma Rae" feel to it. It also feels like a glorified TV movie, with its topical subject matter, well-timed emotional turnarounds and corny courtroom ending.
What elevates the film above the frequent two-dimensionality of Michael Seitzman's script are the performances from an esteemed cast — especially from Theron, powerfully reserved but still radiant beneath her stripped-down exterior. Frances McDormand has a no-nonsense likability as the friend who encourages her to take a job at the mine, Sissy Spacek is quietly moving as Theron's disapproving mother, and Thomas Curtis has some wrenching moments as Theron's unsympathetic teenage son.
But for a movie about sexual harassment — which can be a gray area in terms of interpretation and can be hard to prove even at its most offensively obvious — nearly everyone and everything about "North Country" is painted in didactic black and white.
Inspired by a true story, the film stars Theron as Josey Aimes, a single mother of two who returns to her hometown after leaving her abusive husband. In need of work, she applies for a job at the local mine on the urging of her old friend Glory (McDormand), who drives a truck there and is a union leader.
One of only a handful of female employees, Glory warns Josey that the work can be tough and the treatment from male colleagues can be tougher. But the money is good, which is Josey's primary concern as she struggles alone to support son Sammy (Curtis) and daughter Karen (Elle Peterson). She can't count on help from her parents — her father (Richard Jenkins from "Six Feet Under") is a longtime mine worker who resents his daughter for taking a job he believes a man should have; her old-fashioned mother dutifully, silently agrees.
Even before Josey starts, her boss warns her that the job will require her to do "all sorts of things a woman shouldn't be doing," and urges all the female employees to have a "sense of humor, ladies — rulo numero uno."
A sex toy hidden in a young woman's lunch box eventually gives way to unwanted physical contact in dark corners and dirty words smeared in feces on the walls of the women's locker room. (Caro and cinematographer Chris Menges evoke a sense of their isolation through beautifully bleak wide shots of the smoky mines and the cold, vast terrain.)
The men are unrelentingly cruel — even Josey's father looks the other way at the treatment his daughter endures. The leader of the bullies, Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner), happens to be someone Josey was involved with back in high school, who still carries a grudge against her years later and takes twisted advantage of his workplace authority.
Complaining of harassment seems futile, since the mine is the town's sole source of sustenance and even the women want it to continue thriving under any circumstances. Even Josey's own son turns against her, having given in to the vicious gossip generated to silence her.
Truly, it must have been hell. But is it possible that everyone in town could be so single-mindedly insensitive?
Actually, there are two exceptions: Glory's husband, Kyle (Sean Bean), who no longer works at the mine because of an injury, and Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a high school hockey hero who's come back home after living in New York as a lawyer.
Bill turns Josey down when she first comes to him with the idea of filing a class-action lawsuit against the mine. (Her inspiration: watching the 1991 Anita Hill hearings. The movie just happens to take place right around the same time those were being televised.)
But he changes his mind and eventually agrees to take the case — not out of any sense of moral outrage or righteous indignation, just because it had never been done before.
At least his inclination is honest, which can't be said for everyone else's behavior as the film draws to a maudlin close.
"North Country," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated R for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language. Running time: 105 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press.
October 20th, 2005
North of sexy
Charlize Theron and Niki Caro elevate Hollywood expectations with North Country
I'll concede that the poster for North Country, the movie about the first class-action sexual harassment suit brought against a mine in Minnesota, is more than a little unfortunate. There's something about Charlize Theron's giant coal-smeared and babushka-framed mug that looks like, well, mugging. It's an age-old story: Great film, too bad about the poster art. But it's especially too bad for North Country, an important, uncommonly deft Hollywood movie that deserves to be taken seriously.
The film is a fictionalized version of Jensen et al. vs. Eveleth mines, a class-action suit brought against a mine by its female employees that began in 1979 and took 20 years to prosecute. In the story, Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a single mom who goes to work in the mines under new equal-opportunity laws and, eventually, takes on the mine and the union and even her own father (played by Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under) in court. The cast is filled out by fellow Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson as Theron's love interest/lawyer, and Sean Bean as McDormand's remarkably supportive husband.
Scriptwriter Michael Seitzman, a relative unknown in Hollywood, created the character of Josey as a composite of several real-life women from the Minnesota mines. Though the film has all the hallmarks of big-studio Oscar tearjerker-dom in place, consider that North Country is an expertly written, avidly researched, well-directed big-money movie brought to life by an impressive cast. In other words, the best the studio system has to offer.
For North Country's director, New Zealand-born Niki Caro (whose Whale Rider was a surprise TIFF hit in 2003), the shoot was not a huge transition from her previous film, which was set in a Maori village. Caro says she approached the challenges of Iron Range miner culture and its discontents just as she approached her previous filmmaking experience. "That is, to make it without a shred of cynicism."
"My views about filmmaking didn't change, they solidified," Caro says. "And so did my worldview. The Iron Range has its problems like everywhere else, but their people are good."
The climactic scene in North Country has Aimes give a speech at a union hall meeting. For the shoot, which occurred in the first week of the schedule, Caro hired 300 extras from the area, many of whom had worked in the mines as their families had for generations. That day was odd, say Caro and Theron, because the true history of this case is not so far removed from the memories of Minnesotans. "It was Woody they couldn't get enough of," says Theron. "They'd look back at Woody and go, 'Yeah, Woody! You're the maaaaan!' And then they'd turn back to me [and say], 'Take your top off!'"
The script, which would be called melodramatic if it didn't ring so true, has Theron's character, a tough-cookie good-time girl who got pregnant in high school, endure pretty much every indignity men - and other women - can pile upon her until she finally decides she's not going to be hurt any more. In a certain sense, Josey recalls Theron's previous Oscar-winning performance as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster - though instead of picking up a gun, Josey Aimes is a hero with the couilles to fight for her rights in court, rather than having a self-destructive meltdown.
If you're a total asshole like most entertainment journalists, you'll also see the need to say that this is another Theron "ugly movie," as though Josey, totally hot in her '80s mullet and snow boots, is somehow a step down for Theron, who grew up on a hardscrabble farm in South Africa in a household where domestic abuse was the norm.
"It's somewhat outrageous... we never discussed, you know, what's she's going to look like," says Theron. "All we discussed was the truth of this woman and the life that she has led. Niki and I never said, 'Oh, she must have really skinny eyebrows or not wear blush,' or anything like that."
Indeed, the area of Northern Minnesota where the film is set is populated by Fins and Swedes, so willowy girls with pink skin, like Charlize, are actually the norm.
"I think of Josey as this girl who got quite a lot of attention in high school... and [subsequent] events in her life have eroded that confidence. But I never thought of her as anything but a very normal girl."
"There's a charming misconception in America that every beautiful girl gets out of every small town and goes to Hollywood," adds Caro. "But it's the beautiful ones who get stuck first, who get married first. And let's face it - what happens to Josey as a teenager doesn't happen because she's clever, it happens because of the way she looks."
This, in a sense, is a more intelligent version of the argument that a women gets harassed because of the way she looks, or the very fact that she is a woman - arguments that are, in this case, absolutely true. In the film, the female miners endure everything from rape to verbal abuse and extra-hazardous working conditions while their male union brothers invent new ways to harass them using port-a-potties and feces. Is this overkill?
"There were a lot of stories of women who were going through the same thing on the Iron Range," says scriptwriter Seitzman. "We couldn't tell each story in the movie, but in terms of what happens in the mine, everything that happens had to have happened in real life to end up in the script."
"The movie is about the desire to feel safe and comfortable in your environment, and do what it is you want to do without people stopping you just because you look a certain way," he continues. "I think these themes are pretty universal."
"When we talked to the [actual female miners who consulted on the film] about the first time they went into the mine, they all [told the same story]," concludes Caro. "They all grew up with those buildings on the landscape, and those smokestacks... it was always mythical, so huge and beautiful, and the men were always going off to work. In that scene of Josey walking through the mine for the first time, it's such a great moment for her to have a job for the first time, and we see all the promise it offers her in her life, all the security. If this film is about anything, it's about the right to work for some kind of security, and it's not a female right, it's a human right and a civil right."
Movie Review: "North Country" (2005)
Reviewed by Harvey S. Karten
Release Date: October 21st, 2005 (wide)
Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Michael Seitzman
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner, Michelle Monaghan, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Thomas Curtis
They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, though in polite circles, being scorned means nothing more serious than standing up your date or leaving a relationship permanently. Scorn has a more serious meaning when you're talking about Josie Aimes (Charlize Theron), a resident of a small Minnesota town whose only well-paying jobs are in the iron mines.
It's bad enough that she was beaten up by her abusive husband, whom she left, though her unsympathetic dad, Hank (Richard Jenkins), told her to go back to the scuzz. A single mother with a teen boy and a younger girl to care for–the boy as the product of rape by the girl's teacher–she needs to relocate away from her dad and her mom (Sissy Spacek), but washing hair won't cut it. The mines pay well, however the men have a yahoo mentality. Men know that the mining industry is dying out and believe women miners are displacing men, who allegedly need the jobs more to support their families.
"North Country" is based on a true story that took place in a Minnesota courtroom in 1989. Michael Seitzman's screenplay is an adaptation of Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler's book "Class Action: The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law." This was the first time that a class action suit for sexual harassment went to court, at least in Minnesota.
Niki Caro, the New Zealand director, "Whale Rider"--a retelling of an ancient Maori legend in which a young girl must go about all odds to prove to her grandfather that she is a natural leader--is in her metier with "North Country." She takes us into the Minnesota courtroom as Josie, who has sued the mining company for failing to protect her from gross sexual aggression, makes her case, represented by a New York lawyer, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), once a star Minnesota hockey player. Most of the two hours plus film takes place in the mines and in the homes of residents like Kyle (Sean Bean), who is the loving and supportive husband of Josie's friend, Glory (Frances McDormand). Each time an examination of a witness takes place, director Caro takes us into the snowbound atmosphere of the mine where rough, tough blue-collar men and a few women dig out and lift iron, building pyramids out of the ore.
In the inital moments we watch Josie washing Glory's hair. Josie is encouraged by her friend to join her, to work in the mines. The Supeme Court had ordered a quota that forces the company to hire women, but while most of the handful of other women on the job are one-of-the-guys types, the men save their childish hostilities for Josie. When Josie protests to the management that men had written four-letter words on the walls, in one case using human excrement, she evokes even more anger from the men, particularly from Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner), who one day corners her in an isolated area and physically abuses her. Josie tries to get other women to serve as witnesses to the harassment–which includes the turning over of a portable john while another woman is there, the leaving of semen on the clothes of another, and the placement of a dildo inside the lunch box of a third.
While Caro portrays the grit of the mines and the emotional resonance of the courtroom scenes, she treats the vast majority of men as incapable of acting with sympathy or with a modicum of maturity. Hank, Josie's dad, is the one fellow who is allowed to change his attitude. For the most part he is more concerned about the damage Josie is causing to his family's reputation, but ultimately he will do an about-face and come to the defense of his daughter. Caro also shows Josie's frustration in getting just two other plaintiffs to join her in order to fulfill the judge's definition of a class action suit. The women are conflicted: on the one hand, they need their jobs, but on the other, they must feel a need to defend one of their own.
The project is lensed nicely by Chris Menges, who is one aerial scene illustrates the mines as though they were the gates of Hades. We wonder how these workers can go five times a week into the unremitting pits without protection from the dust which must be ubiquitous.
"North Country" is a feel-good movie, which unfortunately makes the outcome known well in advance by the audience. The pic serves as well as didactic instruction not only in the dangerous operations required of the miners but also an explication of an actual story–like those of Martin Ritt's "Norma Rae" and Mike Nichols's "Silkwood"–of how one woman sets the tone nationally for gender justice in what had been regarded as exclusively male preserves.
One may find it difficult, though, to accept a looker like Charlize Theron as a miner, just as it was nearly impossible to see Catherine Deneuve as Kathy, a gritty factory worker in Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark." Director Niki Caro does yeoman work in balancing several stories: that of a woman's fight for justice, of a woman's need to provide a good home for her two children, and of a woman's dealing with the resistance of her own father to the cause.
Rated R. 127 minutes. (c) 2005 by Harvey Karten
21:11:08 - 19.10.05 - Movie Reviews - ID 123.
Actresses mine rich material in 'North Country'
RICHARD FOREMAN, Warner Bros. Pictures/The Associated Press
Directed by Niki Caro. Based on the book "Class Action" by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. Starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner, Michelle Monaghan, Woody Harrelson and Sissy Spacek. Running time: 123 minutes. Classified: R (for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language).
By Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
After Josey Aimes takes her kids and walks out on the boyfriend who beats her, she doesn't find a lot of sympathy back at home. "He caught you with another man? That's why he laid hands on you?" asks her father. "You can actually ask me that question?" she says. He can. In that place, at that time, whatever happened was the woman's fault. Josey has returned to her hometown in northern Minnesota, where her father works in the strip mines of the Mesabi Iron Range.
She gets a job as a hairdresser. It doesn't pay much. She can make six times more as a miner. She applies for a job and gets one, even though her new boss is not happy: "It involves lifting, driving, and all sorts of other things a woman shouldn't be doing, if you ask me. But the Supreme Court doesn't agree." Out of every 30 miners, 29 are men. Josey, who is good-looking and has an attitude, becomes a target for lust and hate, which here amount to the same thing.
"North Country," which tells her story, is inspired by the life of a real person, Lois Jenson, who filed the first class-action lawsuit for sexual harassment in American history. That the suit was settled as recently as 1991 came as a surprise to me; I would have guessed the 1970s, but no, that's when the original court decision came down. Like the court's decisions on civil rights, it didn't change everything overnight.
The filmmakers say Josey Aimes is a character inspired by Jenson's lawsuit but otherwise fictional; the real Jenson is not an Erin Brockovich-style firebrand, and keeps a low profile. What Charlize Theron does with the character is bring compelling human detail. We believe she looks this way, sounds this way, thinks this way. After "Monster," here is another extraordinary role from an actress who has the beauty of a fashion model but has found resources within herself for these powerful roles about unglamorous women in the world of men.
The difference is that her Aileen Wuornos, in "Monster," was a murderer, no matter what society first did to her. All Josey Aimes wants is a house of her own, good meals and clothes for her kids, and enough money to buy her son hockey skates once in a while. Reasonable enough, it would seem, but even her father, Hank (Richard Jenkins), is opposed to women working in the mines, because it's not "women's work," and because she is taking the job away from a man "who needs it to support his family." Josey replies: "So do I." But even the women in the community believe there's something wrong if she can't find a man to take care of her.
"North Country" is the first movie by Niki Caro since the wonderful "Whale Rider." That was the film about a 12-year-old Maori girl in New Zealand who is next in an ancestral line to be chief of her people, but is kept from the position because she is female. Now here is another woman told what she can't do because she is a woman. "Whale Rider" won an Oscar nomination for young Keisha Castle-Hughes, who lost to Charlize Theron. Now Theron and Caro will probably be going to the Academy Awards again.
Caro sees the story in terms of two worlds. The first is the world of the women in the community, exemplified by a miner named Glory (Frances McDormand), who is the only female on the union negotiating committee, and has a no-nonsense, folksy approach that disarms the men. She finds a way to get what she wants without confrontation. The other women miners are hard-working survivors who put up with obscenity and worse, and keep their heads down because they need their jobs more than they need to make a point. Josey has two problems: She is picked on more than the others, and one of her persecutors is a supervisor named Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner), who shares a secret with her that goes back to high school, and has left him filled with guilt and hostility.
In the male world, picking on women is all in a day's work. It's what a man does. A woman operates a piece of heavy machinery unaware that a sign painted on the cab advertises sex for sale. The women find obscenities written in excrement on the walls of their locker room. When McDormand convinces the union to ask for portable toilets for the women, "who can't hold it as long as you fellas," one of the first women to use one has it toppled while she's inside.
There is also all sorts of touching and fondling, but if a woman is going to insist on having breasts, how can a guy be blamed for copping a feel? After Bobby Sharp assaults Josey, his wife screams at her in public: "Stay away from Bobby Sharp!" It is assumed and widely reported that Josey is a tramp, and she is advised to "spend less time stirring up your female co-workers and less time in the beds of your male co-workers."
She appeals to a local lawyer (Woody Harrelson), who takes the case partly because it will establish new law. It does. The courtroom protocol in the closing scenes is not exactly conventional, but this isn't a documentary about legal procedure; it's a drama about a woman's struggle in a community where even the good people are afraid to support her. The court scenes work magnificently on that level.
"North Country" is one of those movies that stir you up and make you mad because it dramatizes practices you've heard about but never really visualized. We remember that Frances McDormand played a woman police officer in this same area in "Fargo," and we value that memory because it provides a foundation for Josey Aimes. McDormand's role in this movie is different and much sadder, but brings the same pluck and common sense to the screen. Put these two women together (as actors and characters) and they can accomplish just about anything. Watching them do it is a great movie experience.
This story appeared on Page C23 of The Standard-Times on October 20, 2005.