By John Frame
October 25, 2005 in Voices
usual spoiler warnings for reviews
A subtle but critical moment occurs in the middle of Niki Caro's second film, North Country, when Anita Hill appears on the TV screen during a press hearing regarding her allegations of sexual harassment against then–Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Though this scene does not work chronologically (the Thomas hearings were in 1991; the movie takes place years earlier), it does possess a haunting reality that we still must face today.
Anita Hill was considered to be the first woman to take such a public stance on sexual harassment against a political figure. She was not, however, the first to draw attention to the crime itself on a national level. That is credited to Lois Jensen, who in 1986 brought the first class-action lawsuit against a Minnesota mining company. The case didn't settle, though, until 1999. This film is based on Jensen's life.
In North Country, Charlize Theron (in another Oscar-caliber performance) plays Josey Aimes, a small-town woman with two children, an abusive husband, and not much going for her. One day, after her husband beats her, she decides she's had enough, grabs the kids, loads up the pick-up truck, and heads for her parents' home. She is met with ridicule from her father, Hank (played by Richard Jenkins in a quietly strong performance). But it is here that Josey meets the beginning of the rest of her life. She becomes friends with a local female mining worker named Glory (played by Frances McDormand in a show-stealing, fierce portrayal), who encourages her to apply for a position. When Josey considers, and finally accepts, the job, the only thing her father can say is, "You wanna be a lesbian now?"
Though Josey earns six times the amount she made as a hairdresser, which allows her to eventually buy a shabby little home of her own and provide new hockey skates and a trampoline for her children, she is still considered a worthless woman when she walks into the women's lounge at work to find expletives written in excrement on the walls. She is left to clean it up. It is obviously her fault.
The women at the mine are more than verbally harassed; they are beaten, touched inappropriately, and, more than likely, raped. But the film is not just about the injustices that these women face in a male-dominated work force. It is not a "male-bashing" film concerned with radical feminist messages or "burn-your-bra" statements. It doesn't possess these elements because this film is not typical in that capacity. It is not a remake of Erin Brockovich.
When Josey finally musters up the courage to get a lawyer (played with conviction by Woody Harrelson) and bring a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company, she has a lot to lose: her father, her reputation (already in shambles), her friends, and even her son, who has heard his mother called a whore so many times that he has started to believe it. Her female coworkers are willing to endure it if it means that they can get a decent paycheck. Josey tries to convince her coworkers to take a stand with her, but the risk is a hard sell for the women, and she needs two coworkers by her side to file a class action lawsuit.
The ending is unflinching, and, yes, honest, but it is a bit unconventional in protocol. We witness a change of heart in some of the women. More importantly, we see the transformation of the brave Josey, who simply wanted to make money to support her children but ended up fighting for much more.
Surprisingly, some notable performances come from the supporting male characters. Glory's husband, Kyle (Sean Bean, in a sincerely sweet performance), sticks by his wife through an illness that grabs at her so quickly and brutally that anyone would gladly take severe arthritis in its place. But it is in Josey's parents, Hank and Alice (Sissy Spacek), as well as her children, Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and Karen (Elle Peterson), that we see the confusion that overwhelms the family. Hank is torn between supporting his friends at the mine and his love for his daughter. In Hank, we witness the struggle between standing up for the daughter he clearly loves and standing by the views that he shares with his male coworkers. Meanwhile, Alice must find a way to stand up for her daughter and teach her husband an important lesson, and Sammy is torn between the truth of what he hears and what he sees.
The film is directed by Niki Caro, whose debut film, Whale Rider, won acclaim for its intimate and inspiring look at a young heroine, Oscar-nominated 13-year-old star Keisha Castle-Hughes. That Oscar ultimately went to Theron, who was recognized for her breakthrough role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Though Theron made a complete vocal and physical transformation for that film, she's a bit more recognizable here. But this performance is so real and natural that we simply believe her as Josey.
North Country informs us that in 1975, the first woman was hired in the mining industry, and by 1989 (when the film takes place), men still outnumbered women 30:1. "You know they don't want us up there," Glory states early in the film. "Yeah, I got that," replies Josey. She ain't got a clue.