First-rate cast explores sexual harassment
By Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News
October 21, 2005
usual spoiler warnings for reviews
If you want to know the full story of a landmark case that changed sexual harassment law, you'd best buy a copy of Class Action, an extensively reported nonfiction account of the women who brought suit against a Minnesota mine. The book, written by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, is available in paperback.
The makers of North Country, a movie inspired by that 2002 book, take another tack. They seem far less devoted to play-by-play accuracy than to a condensed and concentrated movie that embraces the kind of flourishes that have come to define earnest works of big-screen conscience: speeches that serve as moral arias, last- minute courtroom revelations and emotional crescendos.
Oh well. If you can take North Country as a movie, not a news report, you'll find a moving work that explores sexual harassment with unusual candor.
Charlize Theron plays the fictional character, Josey Aimes. As she did in Monster, Theron takes the road less glamorous to explore the life of a woman whose history reads like the lyric from some forlorn country and western song. Josey's a battered wife who leaves her husband and tries to strike out on her own.
When she returns to her hometown and moves in with her parents, a friend (Frances McDormand) suggests that Josey try working in the local mine. The conditions stink, but the pay is good, and Josey will have a shot at achieving independence. She's tired of depending on men for support.
Theron's performance, heartfelt and at times furious, anchors a movie that has one of the year's best, all-around casts. McDormand, for example, brings rock-hard sensibility to the role of a woman who has learned how to function in an environment that had been an exclusive male preserve. She's capable of giving as good as she gets.
Sean Bean ably plays her devoted husband in what develops into one of the more touching relationships to be captured on film in some time, a portrait of a man who's truly devoted to his spouse.
Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins are equally convincing as Josey's parents. Jenkins works in the mine and feels shamed by the fact that his daughter has tried to find a place in his world. He swallows his anger on the job, but can't conceal his bitterness from Josey, who ultimately finds an attorney to help her (a restrained Woody Harrelson).
As a picture of sexual harassment at its crudest, North Country never disappoints. The movie focuses on the steelworkers who took the most aggressive role in making life miserable for the women, who aren't initially united about how to react. Some want to lead lives of accommodation. Fearful of losing income, they reluctantly soldier on.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) wisely treats the town as another character in the drama. The mine, sometimes photographed in gliding overhead shots, looks suitably ominous, a scar on the landscape. The locals find relief rooting for their kids in hockey games, or at local bars, where the major preoccupation seems to involve blowing off steam.
There's never any question that these are hard-working folks who are somewhat insulated from the changes that rocked less isolated parts of the nation.
The price that Josey pays for working in the mine extends to her family. As Josey pursues dignity and justice, her teenage son (Thomas Curtis) faces his own brand of harassment. The movie also does a good job of showing how a woman's reputation can be corrupted by ignorance and stereotyping, particularly in a small town.
North Country may not mine greatness, in part because its courtroom scenes don't quite pass muster. And Josey's case unfolds at roughly the same time as the Anita Hill testimony before Congress, a somewhat heavy- handed reference to a more upscale brand of sexual harassment.
But the movie casts a knowing eye on life in a remote town where big issues play out in the grit and dirt of a mine, and only the toughest survive, regardless of gender.
Copyright 2005, Rocky Mountain News.