October 21, 2005
By CARLA MEYER, Sacramento Bee
(SH) - In the 1970s and 1980s, Hollywood regularly released female-forward, issue-oriented pictures, often set in America's heartland and starring Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep or Sally Field. Over time, these films, no longer considered marketable, became the purview of cable television and the independent film world.
Built around a landmark 1984 sexual harassment case, "North Country" establishes Charlize Theron as a successor to those '70s and '80s actresses who embodied that very American combination of earthiness and resilience - though Theron is South African and a bigger glamour puss than any of them. As Josey, an iron miner, mother and unlikely feminist, Theron is so natural and accessible that she fits seamlessly with co-stars and fellow Oscar winners Spacek and Frances McDormand, whose faces are practically emblems of the heartland.
Rather than present her character as a martyr, Theron underlines her vulnerabilities. Prone to emotion, Josey cries and lashes out but remains unshakable in her belief that she's got a right to a well-paying job that will let her support her two kids.
Abused by her husband, she has returned to her northern Minnesota hometown and a mine-worker father (Richard Jenkins) still resentful that she bore a son (Thomas Curtis) out of wedlock as a teenager. Her mother (Spacek) covers her shame about her daughter by bestowing affection on the grandchildren.
Director Niki Caro brings a stark beauty to "North Country." Overhead shots capture a vast snowy landscape surrounding brown, gray and toxic craters that support a way of life. Fittingly, Caro uses Bob Dylan songs, including "Girl of the North Country." Like Josey, Dylan grew up and became a rebel in this neck of Minnesota.
It's a place that seems opposed in every way to the lush New Zealand setting of Caro's breakthrough film "Whale Rider." But the views of women's roles are about as advanced here as they were among the Maori elders in "Whale Rider."
Josey and other female workers are welcomed to the mines with a scolding. Just by being there as part of an integration program, they are taking jobs from men with families. The dozen or so female workers must endure constant razzing, grabbing and worse. Josey gets stuck working in a tunnel with a supervisor/sadist (a sleazy Jeremy Renner) she knew in high school.
"North Country" doesn't try to pass off Theron, striking even in safety goggles and grit, as a typical female miner. Josey's beauty, frequently acknowledged, makes her a target - not just of abuse from the miners, but of gossip among the town's women, who see her as a potential man-stealer. She's just the opposite, however, incapable even of the minor flirting her female colleagues practice in trying to mollify the men.
Josey's pal Glory (McDormand), a truck driver at the mine, isn't one to bow either. She can shut down the men with a smile and sharp remark. McDormand's tone is light but her gaze direct in a scene between Glory and her fellow union reps, all male. But no other female miner can approach Glory's innate cool, which is, essentially, McDormand's innate cool.
The male miners seem so awful at times that the film might be accused of gender discrimination. But Caro and her actors, especially Jenkins as Josey's tormented dad, show the pressure the men face to be loyal to their mining brotherhood.
There are some genuine good guys here as well; both of them, not coincidentally, in Glory's orbit. Sean Bean brings great warmth to the role of Glory's boyfriend, an injured miner turned watch repairman. Woody Harrelson plays the couple's pal, an affable local hockey hero and lawyer who will be key to the legal fight depicted in the film.
Growing up in this place didn't harden these men, and it might not harden Josey's son, who resents his mom for drawing negative attention to the family. Young actor Curtis captures the conflict of an adolescent who loves his mom but doesn't want to be a mama's boy.
Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman tip their hand on more than a few occasions, and the film's overcooked courtroom scenes evoke "Law & Order." These moments remind us why movies like this usually bear a Lifetime rather than a Warner Bros. imprint. But "North Country" withstands occasional dips into hokum. It's got righteousness on its side.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Thomas Curtis, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner and Sean Bean
Director: Niki Caro
Writer: Michael Seitzman
Distributor: Warner Bros.