I wonder if "North Country" will be this year's "In the Bedroom" or "The English Patient." Every year, there is one film the Academy, critics, and audiences love, but I don't. It started with "The English Patient," then it was "In the Bedroom," "A Beautiful Mind," and most recently "About Schmidt." It's still early in the year, so I will not relegate North Country to my list of unimpressive, overly pretentious, or just plain annoying films that everyone else loves category just yet. Although, the critics don't seem overly impressed with this mining story either.
"North Country" is the triumphant story of a single mother with few options in life, who is determined not only to work in the predominantly male world of coal mining where women are not welcome, but to be treated equally and humanely. Throughout her life, Josey Aimes, portrayed by Oscar-winning actor Charlize Theron, was treated cruelly by sexist, misogynistic men. Her landscape, the impoverished mining area in Northern Minnesota known as the Iron Range, was as barren and harsh as the men in her life. Set in the 80's, the miners are threatened by a new generation of women competing, due to financial hardships, to work in the mines, so they gang up and harass the female miners incessantly. This was one of my problems with the film.
"North Country" is fiction based on the 1984 landmark sexual harassment case of Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines. In real life, the men may have truly been monsters, perverts, and ignoramuses, but in a movie, I don't want to be hit over the head with how evil these cave dwellers truly are. You had me at hello. In this case, less would have been much more. Woody Harrelson, Aimes' educated, cultured, crusading lawyer, and Sean Bean, the caring, compassionate, and perfect husband (he is supportive of his handicapped and sickly wife, Glory, a former coal miner) are clearly chess pieces put in place to balance out the cast of crude backwards men in the movie. It is not enough of a balance, however, and I found their characters to be as two-dimensional as the miners. The most affecting character with a true arc was Aimes' father, Hank Aimes, played by Richard Jenkins. Frances McDormand (is she now typecast to play Minnesota natives?) is always good in my book and she turns in a credible performance here, only sadly, she is not given a lot to work with. Her character, Glory, is immediately interesting because she has been able to successfully work the coal mines and earn the respect from the men and the union; as long as she doesn't ruffle a feather. Her struggle is betrayed by the weathered lines on her face and her internal conflict is revealed in McDormand's subtle performance. Blame the screenplay for lines like, "I'm not fucking dead yet!" during a critical moment when Glory could have poignantly revealed what she really endured all those years in the coal mines. If utilized more effectively, Glory could have been a gauge of the mounting challenges Aimes would have to face. Her female co-workers did this, but with flat clichéd performances of stereotypes, ideas of women, rather than fully developed women themselves. I felt like I was watching a movie of the week that I had seen so many times before.
"North Country" ends appropriately enough with the court trial. Dramatic, triumphant court scenes are not easy to write, but when well-executed, they are certainly entertaining to watch. Recall "A Few Good Men," "A Time to Kill," "The People vs. Larry Flynt," even "My Cousin Vinny," and you can see where "North Country" lacks luster, energy, and the sense of victory that surely spread through that court room in 1984 when the scales of justice balanced out in the interest of equal rights for women.
Written by: Sydney Leigh Soliz