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By beth mcarthur
Publish Date: 20-Oct-2005
usual spoiler warnings for reviews
Starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, and Woody Harrelson. Rated 18A. For showtimes, please see page 70
North Country is the feel-good downer of the year. The gripping movie, set in the late '80s, focuses on a real-life whistle blower who launched a sexual-harassment lawsuit against a Minnesota mining company. We're not talking some jerk reciting a dirty limerick in front of the typing pool. In North Country, globs of ejaculate are smeared on the women's clothing. Cunts replaces fuck as the blue-collar obscenity of choice. Terrorized women become so frightened of using the portable toilet in front of their abusive coworkers that they hold their pee until they get bladder infections. The court battle that followed savagely degraded North Country's heroine, with its smearing of her as a slut.
When we meet her, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is a battered wife who's moved herself and two kids in with her parents. After taking a lucrative job at the mine at the behest of an old friend (Frances McDormand), the harassment begins almost immediately. Despite the legitimacy of her grievance and similarly abused coworkers, Josey becomes the town pariah. Seeing her vilified by her father (Richard Jenkins), who's ashamed of her, her truculent teenage son (Thomas Curtis), and the male-friendly union is squirm-making enough. More disturbing is that the “sisterhood” itself, fearful to rock the boat, becomes some of Josey's harshest critics. Theron's red-rimmed eyes repeatedly telegraph how dreadful this all is.
So why does it feel good? Like Norma Rae Webster and Karen Silkwood, Aimes's courage to break with the herd and take on The Man make her a powerful role model, despite her blond shag and cigarette smoking. Directed by Niki Caro, whose Whale Rider explored similar, though more subtle, paternalistic themes, North Country is well-written (by Michael Seitzman) and superbly acted. Mindful to also depict nice guys, it shores up Theron with a mellowed-out Sean Bean and Woody Harrelson as, respectively, McDormand's solid husband and Josie's affable lawyer.
It's not perfect. When one character is afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease and uses Herculean effort to talk, the whirring of Hollywood's sentimental-goo machine is almost audible. Hard-nosed people have miraculous changes of heart. And, as in the scene where Josey watches the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings on television and her mother (Sissy Spacek) tsks, "that poor man's family", North Country fairly drips with prejudicial utterances against women's credibility and capabilities, ones that seem inserted to inflame liberated audiences. That said, it speaks well of our human-rights progress 15 years on that a local audience's horrified gasps at the ignorant mindset endemic throughout the film's Minnesota locale were as loud as at scenes of actual abuse.