Posted on Fri, Oct. 21, 2005
Theron delivers a gem in flawed tale of sexual harrassment case
"North Country" is officially about the woman who won our nation's first sexual harassment case against a corporation, suing the mining company that employed her and refused to give her decent, equitable treatment.
What it's really about is the mindset of American men, whose brains are denser than any metal in the periodic table.
The action has been advanced clumsily from 1984, when the suit took place, to 1991, so it can coincide with Clarence Thomas' bid to join the Supreme Court. Just like Anita Hill, whom Congress derided for her testimony against Thomas, the offended heroine of "North Country" can't get anyone to believe her. (Not subtle.)
Fictionalized character Josie Aimes (Charlize Theron), a single mom fleeing an abusive relationship, signs on to do grunt labor at an iron mine; the pay surpasses anything else she could earn in her northern Minnesota town, and she has two kids.
Her father (Richard Jenkins) is embarrassed to have her work in the same venue as he does; her mother (Sissy Spacek) has quietly accepted the idea that woman belong at home; her pal, savvy miner Glory (Frances McDormand), counsels Josie to accept a certain amount of guff and get along until she's tolerated.
But the mind boggles at masculine stupidity. Though women have worked around these mines for 16 years, the guys still grab their breasts and buttocks, make vile remarks and scrawl profanities in excrement across their bathrooms. (Who asked for THAT detail? "Hey, Roy, you carry the crap bucket today. Be sure to cover the whole wall!")
After a decade and a half, these bozos don't realize women aren't going away. Female employees would tolerate a lot and keep their mouths shut, but all-male management lets "the boys" nearly rape them or overturn them in Porta-Johns full of waste. Bosses won't supply the ounce of prevention that would be worth a pound of lawsuits.
So Josie goes to court, accompanied by reluctant attorney Bill White (Woody Harrelson). Now "North Country" resorts to theatrics a judge would squelch after one outburst, as director Niki Caro and writer Michael Seitzman aim for a "Spartacus" feel.
In retrospect, the movie seems weaker than it did in the theater. There the power of Theron's performance grabs and holds you. (Her Oscar for "Monster" was no fluke.) Veterans McDormand, Jenkins and Spacek are impeccable; relative newcomer Michelle Monaghan scores points as the flirtiest yet most vulnerable of new employees. Even Sean Bean, getting a rare likeable role as Glory's partner, quietly adds strength to the cast.
You root for Josie to win over her alienated dad and estranged son (Thomas Curtis), who's ostracized by schoolmates because their parents hate his mom. You want her to get revenge on the smug mining company owner and his doglike minions (James Cada and Xander Berkeley).
Only afterward did I see how much the filmmakers stacked the deck, turning Josie into a victim in her personal life as well as her professional one. It's as if her triumph against corporate sexism, landmark though it was, might not be enough to send us away happy; she must be vindicated on every count leveled by misunderstanding friends and family members. As usual, Hollywood doesn't know when to stop.
Fictionalized account of first U.S. lawsuit against sexual harassment. Powerful, if sometimes heavy-handed.
STARS: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Sean Bean.
DIRECTOR: Niki Caro.
LENGTH: 122 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 (sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language).