October 21, 2005
BY TERRY LAWSON
FREE PRESS MOVIE CRITIC
In its opening minutes, "North Country" quickly dispels some potential preconceptions.
out of four stars
Rated R; sexual theme, language, violence
2 hours, 6 minutes
The first would be that Niki Caro's excellent direction of 2003's "Whale Rider" was somehow tied to her New Zealand heritage and affinity for the tribal fable that inspired it.
The second would be that Charlize Theron's Oscar for playing an unglamorous killer was more a consequence of novelty than acting ability.
The third, though, is the most significant: that the majority of sexual harassment lawsuits -- especially of the class action variety -- are less about workplace justice than about getting money or forwarding the feminist agenda.
"North Country" is in the tradition of workers-rights films like "Norma Rae" and "Silkwood" in that it sends its message through a convincing character whose temerity and courage are accompanied by less heroic baggage.
Theron plays Josey Aimes, a single mother who seeks refuge from an abusive spouse with her parents in the Minnesota town where she was raised. She arrives not long after the local iron mine, the town's primary employer, has been compelled by federal law to offer jobs that were once the exclusive purvey of men to women.
Although "North Country" is a fictionalized account of the 1984 case that established sexual harassment law, the incidents depicted in the film are drawn from court records and testimony.
This isn't about being teased or being flirted with. It isn't about proving anything but the obvious: Women -- and men -- should be able to work in an atmosphere where hostility, violence, threats and prejudice are not sanctioned by their bosses.
Josey is unable to save enough of her waitress tips to move into her own place with her adolescent daughter and troubled teenage son (Thomas Curtis). Encouraged by Glory (Frances McDormand), a high school friend who took a job at the mines, she applies for a job there.
Her relief at being hired is hardly shared by her miner father (Richard Jenkins), even though he wants Josey out of the house. Her mother (Sissy Spacek) explains that it wounds his ego to see his daughter joining the women he and his fellow workers so resent. And Josey's own happiness is short-lived. She's assured she isn't wanted there by her foreman even before she begins an introductory tour punctuated by slurs and sexual insults.
Instead of abating, the harassment increases, graduating from juvenile pranks to groping to violence, and though some of it is personal, coming from an old high school predator-boyfriend (Jeremy Renner), much of it is inspired by all the women doing "men's jobs."
Josey's attempts to get the other women to band together to take their grievances beyond middle management are rebuffed by women who need their jobs.
A few good men
Thankfully, "North Country" does introduce a couple of decent examples of the male gender in Kyle (Sean Bean), Glory's disabled and understandably worried husband, and Bill White (Woody Harrelson). A former high school hockey hero back in town to recover from a broken marriage and an unsatisfying law career, Bill counsels Josey not to risk losing her job. But when she decides otherwise, he takes her case, and the courtroom battle provides the frame for the film's primary events.
Like the Bill White character, the tone of "North Country" is more tempered than strident. So much so that when it does pick up a hammer to get its point across, as in one of those rousing, cornball town meeting scenes where the thick-headed locals finally begin to see things from Josey's point of view, it falls with a noticeable thud.
These missteps are more than balanced however, by the uniformly fine performances and the excellent leading turn by Theron in a role that ultimately seems harder to play than the sociopath of "Monster."
Sights and sounds
"North Country" is greatly enhanced by its precise evocation of the physical desolation of upper Minnesota. The musical score by Gustavo Santaolalla incorporates songs by Bob Dylan, including his first new composition in four years, "Go Tell Old Bill," and his ballad "Sweetheart Like You," which some people labeled sexist when it was released in the mid-'80s. In this context, lyrics like "You know a woman like you should be at home, that's where you belong" assume an irony even the composer probably never envisioned.
Contact TERRY LAWSON at 313-223-4524 or firstname.lastname@example.org.