by ANTHONY LANE
Issue of 2005-10-31
To bring a class-action lawsuit against a mining company for sexual harassment is hard enough, but you try getting people to see a movie about a class-action lawsuit brought against a mining company for sexual harassment. Such is the challenge that the director Niki Caro has set herself. "North Country" stars Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes, who walks out of a punch-drunk marriage, takes her two children, and drives to Minnesota. There she returns to her mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), and her gravelly father, Hank (Richard Jenkins), the kind of guy who thinks that a wife with a black eye must somehow be to blame.
Hank works at the iron mines nearby. So does Glory (Frances McDormand), an old friend of Josey's, who persuades her to follow suit. The job is all grease and grime, but it pays well. The problem is that, from management down to rockface, the miners don't want females on their turf; a fear and loathing of women seems grained into the men's skins, like dirt, and there is a primitive, almost infantile filth-fixation in the way that they vent that scorn, daubing fecal graffiti on the women's locker-room walls. Josey hits back, which makes her more of a pest than a hero. Not until she airs her grievance in court, with the help of Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a local lawyer, does she find out who her friends are. There is so much tamping down here, so many seams of discontent, that the uplifting scenes of the finale seem to have floated in from another film. Theron, who is fast becoming the queen of angry victimhood, can barely remember how to look pleased.
"North Country" is beautifully shot by Chris Menges, whose credits run from "Kes" to "Dirty Pretty Things," yet in this case the beauty—light shafting in from the ceiling of the plant, heaps of taconite gleaming like gold—is not always helpful, tugging against the wish to record a wretched truth. How pretty should dirty things be? As with "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," however, you cannot help being stirred by the reach and depth, the constant rebuffs to sloppiness, of a strong ensemble. Spacek never lets the mother's adherence to good form tighten her into a tyrant or a shrew, and, when she cracks, she cracks quickly and almost noiselessly, like a teacup. In the role of Glory, McDormand could have turned mushy when she grows sick, but she ups her rueful humor instead; as for Sean Bean, playing her husband, there is no mistaking the relief with which, after a résumé full of hams and hunks, he embraces this unexplosive role. The scene in his downstairs workshop, where he delivers a gentle lecture on hatred to Josey's son, is the best thing Bean has ever done, and he owes Niki Caro a drink. And Michelle Monaghan, fresh from "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," gives us the heartbreaking Sherry, a fellow-sufferer alongside Josey, barely grown up but already ground down. It's a long way from Harmony Faith Lane.
Copyright © CondéNet 2005.