By TOM HALLMAN
Cox News Service
Good movies aren't always fun.
And there is precious little resembling fun in "North Country." But it is a very good movie: a grim, gritty, gut-wrenching saga based on the first class-action lawsuit ever filed in a sexual-harassment case.
Like the Marine Corps, this movie will tear you down before it builds you back up again. And like a Marine, you won't feel quite the same when it's over.
The verdict: Emotionally agonizing, with exceptionally fine performances from Charlize Theron and several others.
Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean
Release date: Oct. 14, 2005
Rating: R for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language.
The "north country" of the title is the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota. The time is the early 1980s. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), freshly beaten up — again — by her husband, has packed up her children and returned to the mining town where she grew up.
She finds no warm, protecting embrace from Mom and Dad. Seeing the bruises that are her ex-husband's signature, her father (Richard Jenkins) asks whether hubby caught her in bed with another man. Mom (Sissy Spacek) blames the abuse on her son-in-law's unemployment: "A man needs a job," she murmurs.
And these are just the opening minutes. Not even Parris Island gets this tough this fast.
Determined to support her kids on her own, Josey seeks the highest wage she can find — at the iron mine where her dad works. The harrassment is immediate. It is blatant. And it is widespread, affecting every woman who works there. Advises the lone female representative to the union local, played with characteristic strength and finesse by Frances McDormand: "You gotta get your gator skin on... We can take any crap they dish out."
A male coworker is more blunt: "Work hard, keep your mouth shut and take it like a man."
Josey is a woman abused by everyone around her: her husband, her parents, her employers, her colleagues, her teacher and even her neighbors. When she stands up — first to management, then in court — she can expect no support, especially from her coworkers, who believe she'll only make things worse by complaining. She must go it alone, represented by an attorney (Woody Harrelson) who takes the case only for its novelty.
"North Country" is a fictionalized account of a historic event. It's based on the book "Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law." But this film is no legal treatise. It takes liberties to create a heart-rending story around a composite lead character — and Theron portrays the part of a woman victimized by a lifetime of abuse with painful authenticity.
She clearly knows the role. Her mother shot and killed Charlize's father when the actress was still a teen; police in her native South Africa deemed it self defense. Whatever her motivation, Theron brings Josey alive on the screen with stinging success.
Supporting actors — even minor ones — also sparkle in "North Country." McDormand brightens the role of Glory, the union rep. As her boyfriend, Kyle, Sean Bean takes an extremely small part and injects it with enormous life. Spacek and Jenkins give subtle, understated and absolutely convincing performances as Josey's mom and dad.
And the movie speaks well even when the characters don't. Carefully considered facial expressions combined with intelligent film editing and interplay with Grammy-winner Gustavo Santaolalla's music score — especially during courtroom sequences — often say what needs saying more powerfully than words could. One silent drive with Josie's parents will leave you breathless.
Altogether, "North Country" is emotionally agonizing.
You will be anguished.
You will be angered.
But you will be moved.