Published: Thursday, October 27, 2005 -- The Truth, D7
Last updated: 10/27/2005 12:04:03 AMBy Ben FordTruth Staff
usual spoiler warnings for reviews
It's difficult now to remember a time when the term "sexual harassment" wasn't in our vocabulary, but it was relatively new in 1988, when Lois Jenson and a group of her female co-workers filed the nation's first class-action sexual harassment suit, against Eveleth Mines.
The new movie "North Country" (HH out of four), which is "inspired by" that case, takes us back to the days when the Clarence Thomas hearings brought the issue into our living rooms on television and the Eveleth Mines suit helped make it OK for women to at last speak up against unspeakable treatment in the workplace.
But the victory -- and it's extremely generous to label it that -- won by the movie is a hollow one, brought about through strong acting and realistic direction and cinematography, but almost completely nullified by its redundancy and the ridiculous farce of a trial which concludes the film. "North Country" goes to extraordinary effort to document how awful the women of the mines were treated, only to completely ditch reality later and undermine itself with shameless, unnecessary melodramatics.
"North Country," directed by the talented Niki Caro ("Whale Rider"), is a hung jury that should have been an open-and-shut case.
Charlize Theron de-glams to play Josey Aimes, a rural Minnesota woman with two kids who's just left her husband because he beats her. She swallows her pride and moves in with her emotionally distant parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins). Her father, a real piece of work, assumes she was beaten because her husband caught her with another man.
Josey meets an old friend, Glory (Frances McDormand, who, after "Fargo," knows her way around a Minnesota accent), who suggests she apply for a job at the mine where she (and Josey's father) work.
The next hour or so of the movie is dedicated to showing each and every humiliation Josey and the other female mine workers suffer at the hands of their male colleagues. One woman finds a sex toy in her lunchbox. Nasty words are scrawled in excrement on the walls of the women's locker room. Josey herself is nearly raped. Even the boss' office has a sexually suggestive wall calendar.
Is there any doubt in your mind where this film is heading? Is there any doubt what its creators want you to feel?
The only real drama created by the movie is in the way it makes us wonder just how long Josey will take this treatment. (Turns out it's just long enough to stretch the movie to feature length.) Eventually, she does get fed up and decides to try to put a stop to the harassment, but the women are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. They make it clear to Josey that she'd better shut up and take it (like a man, it is implied) or find another place to work.
Josey hires lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) to take her case, but even he tries to convince her to let it go and start over in another job. "I don't have any start over left," she tells him.
The movie builds up to the most improbable trial staged in the movies in years. The outcome is stirring and well earned, but it's just not genuine.
That's a shame, because the performances are authentic. Theron won an Oscar for her role as a serial killer in "Monster," but I felt it was more a triumph of makeup than acting. She's better as Josey, getting under the character's skin instead of piling on fake flesh.
Nearly every supporting performance is similarly effective, with Jenkins, Rusty Schwimmer (as one of Josey's co-workers) and Sean Bean (as Glory's husband) deserving of extra praise.
The actors bring dignity to a movie that, unfortunately, is all too willing to sacrifice it in order to squeeze a few unearned tears from its audience.