'North Country' Reveals Social Stigmas
By Magesh Nandagopal
usual spoiler warnings for reviews
When complex social problems are fictionalized in film, most are reduced to simplistic moral tales which end up glorifying an individual's (mostly a highly paid Hollywood star) triumph over the forces of evil. Reality proves otherwise. Any meaningful and lasting change is brought about by broad-based efforts of numerous people, where some individuals play an instrumental role. A change for better is society's triumph over itself.
"North Country" deals with the issue of sexual harassment faced by women workers in a steel mine in northern Minnesota. The sexual harassment is not just by their male co-workers, but by the entire community that consists of the mine workers and their families. In doing so, it underlines a key fact - such acts of gender-prejudice is not perpetrated by men alone, but are perpetrated by the society as a whole. Centuries of marginalization of women is brutally rationalized by one simple sentence by Sissy Spacek's character, "kids are your purpose, the father brings home the money"
Josey Aimes, played by Charlize Theron, flees an abusive relationship, with two kids in tow, to move in with her parents. She tries out odd-jobs before somebody mentions that she could make six times as much by working in the steel mine. Her father, who has worked in the mine for the majority of his life, is not pleased with Josey's decision - "women just don't do such things." To start off, she is subjected to a far more intrusive medical exam than one would expect. Then, the torture starts - some outrageous acts passed off as fun, some explicit comments, actions, some implicit gestures. All aimed at sending one message - women have no business doing a man's job.
The women respond to these situations with whatever means accessible to them. But most of the recourses are fruitless, and taking an extreme step might put their jobs at risk. The movie deals with the various facets of this problem in the most convincing of ways. The filmmakers are very ambitious in diving into the depths of this problem. This ambition almost derails the movie in the final act.
Theron returns with a strong performance after her oscar-winning role in "Monster." The movie parades an army of Hollywood A-list actors in supporting roles, like Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Spacek, and Sean Bean. The courtroom scenes are anchored in hard-boiled realism with the help of pitch perfect performances from the defense lawyer (Linda Emond) and the judge (John Aylward). The conversation between the defense lawyer and the president of the mining company is a brilliantly staged shadow fight of thinly veiled professional intimidation and psychological one-upmanship.
The stunning landscape of rural Minnesota in winter provides the backdrop for the human drama much like a David Lean film, where the epic settings provide a perfect backdrop for a personal story. This is done with no uncertain help from the cinematographer Chris Menges. The director is Nikki Caro, whose previous venture was the much loved "Whale Rider." With this movie she proves she is one of the most promising directors to watch out for.