Some facts have been changed to make the story more dramatic, but it still works and Charlize Theron gives a fantastic performance
usual spoiler warnings for reviews
STARS: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner, Michelle Monaghan, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek
WRITER: Michael Seitzman, based on the book CLASS ACTION: THE STORY OF LOIS JENSEN AND THE CASE THAT CHANGED SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAW by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler
DIRECTOR: Niki Caro
DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros.
By: ABBIE BERNSTEIN
NORTH COUNTRY succeeds as drama that feels true at its core, even though we have a strong feeling that a lot of details have been tweaked because somebody thought it made for better storytelling. A simple reading of the title of the book on which NORTH COUNTRY is based tells us that we've parted company with fact enough for the heroine to be called Josey Aimes rather than Lois Jensen. However, this much is shared by reality and film: over a decade after the Supreme Court decreed that women should be allowed into virtually all professions (excepting certain areas of sports and the military), mining was still a heavily male-dominated profession. A lot of the men who worked in the mines were hugely resentful of the women among them, who had to suffer both verbal and physical abuse in silence or else become unemployed. Finally, someone went to court to force civil behavior in the workplace.
In NORTH COUNTRY, that someone is Josey Aimes, nobody's notion of a mine worker at first glance. Josey has just packed up her two children and left her battering husband to return to her parents' home in rural Northern Minnesota, where her father (Richard Jenkins) glowers at her with hurt disapproval and even her gentle mother (Sissy Spacek) asks if the marriage was really so bad. However, Josey's old friend Glory (Frances McDormand) is a truck driver for the local mining company. Conditions are tough, Glory warns, but the pay is great. Dazzled by the prospect of being able to support her two children in modest but decent style and willing to work hard, Josey applies for and gets a job in the pit. What she doesn't count on is not just condescension but the open hostility of her male coworkers, who bully, grope, slander and even assault the women on the crew with impunity. Complaints to management only make the situation worse, but poverty in the region is so intense that no one wants to speak up and get fired.
The screenplay by Michael Seitzman, based on the book CLASS ACTION: THE STORY OF LOIS JENSEN AND THE CASE THAT CHANGED SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAW by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, sets the stakes realistically high, with Josey's primary source of pain coming not from her credible on-the-job fear of being attacked nor her outrage, but at how first the job itself and then the firestorm surrounding her stance alienates her mortified teenaged son Sammy (Thomas Curtis), who is ostracized due to the perceptions of other kids' parents about his mom. The parent/child dynamics are handled with naturalism by Seitzman, director Niki Caro and the excellent cast.
Likewise, the ugly situations encountered by Josey and her fellow female workers resemble news accounts of sexual harassment in other fields – this is handled with sobering plausibility. Where NORTH COUNTRY tends to go overboard is in its depiction of Josey's relationship with her miner father – does he really have to start out as that much of a jerk? Jenkins is first-rate, but his extreme surliness starts to feel like overkill. More, even people who know about lawyers only from watching TV will be aware that some of the courtroom behavior would be shut down immediately rather than allowed to play out and score points.
Even so, NORTH COUNTRY has a lot of power. Theron is absolutely believable as a woman learning to stand up for herself by degrees, even as she takes on a monumentally daunting task – one of the things director Caro does beautifully is make us feel just how physically harrowing mine work actually is – and McDormand is terrific (without nudging it too far, both her accent and demeanor here may remind people of her work in FARGO). Sean Bean projects powerful decency as Glory's husband and Spacek is persuasively low-key as Josey's conflicted mother.
There is abundant opportunity for dramatic conflict in the set-up of NORTH COUNTRY and occasionally the film gets greedy and lunges at too many of them. Even so, what works about it works very well.