North Country

October, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Niki Caro

Starring:Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner, with Woody Harrelson, and and Sissy Spacek

         

Mines located in the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota would seem an unlikely place to find a gripping story, but author Clara Bingham won rave reviews a couple of years back with her meticulously detailed examination of workplace sexual harassment there entitled "Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law". The book provided an unblinking look at the abuse suffered by union women who worked at what had been historically considered "male only" jobs. The lawsuit which arose from their experiences, the stupefying response of management to it and the damage done to those involved even after they won their case makes for sober reading. It might also have made a superb documentary, but could you take its many threads and compress them into a coherent story capable of being told in dramatic fashion? 

Despite its director's good intentions and its quite credible evocation of blue collar life in the hardscrabble surroundings of an economically depressed company town, North Country ignores the complexities of its source and settles for a simplistic storyline which fuses the experiences of a number of the real life women involved into that of single mom Josie Amies, (Charlize Theron) who leaves her abusive husband and goes into the mines to support her two kids. Over the vehement objections of her father, a career miner himself, Josie finds the work hard and the obscene abuse of her male counterparts unacceptably demeaning. Yet when she attempts to confront both union leaders and company management, she finds herself ostracized by her co-workers and isolated from her family. She decides to litigate, but bringing a lawsuit against her employer requires additional plaintiffs so that class action status can be obtained from the trial judge. Josie's efforts to rally her female co-workers in this enterprise are frustrated by their perception of her as a troublemaker, more interested in defying authority than righting legitimate wrongs. It also doesn't help that she's the mother of an illegitimate son who's as embarrassed by all the attention his mother's getting as Josie's own father is.

Theron, who won an Oscar in 2003 for her role as an abused serial killer in Monster, has previously demonstrated that she's capable of bringing out the humanity in the grubbiest of characters; her Josie can swig a long-neck beer and work a pool cue with the best of them. But she remains too attractive to be really credible here; despite a profane outburst or two and a fondness for honky-tonk socializing, Theron's performance suggests a bit of celebrity slumming rather than a realistic portrait of a woman battling to hold on at the edges of her working class life. Surrounded by a cast of thoroughly skilled fellow actors, (Sissy Spacek, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sean Bean among others) the star and director Niki Caro have the kind of bench strength to come up with a memorable film. 

Unfortunately, Caro's last film, (the much over-praised Whale Rider) came so choked with politically correct depictions of ethnic and gender prejudice it could have been used as an equal-employment training tape. She's guilty of the same heavy handedness here, compounding her message of female oppression with a plot resolution about naming her son's father that's more suitable to afternoon soap operas. By the time Ms. Threron's all-too-cute stiff upper lip has arrived at the steps of the courthouse, you can predict the comfortably reassuring outcome. 

North Country's location cinematography captures the immensity of The Iron Range handsomely and Caro's handling of small town life, with its focus on high school hockey games and weekend socializing is nicely done. She also gets a pair of quietly effective performances that stand out as exceptions to the rather formulaic ones surrounding them. As Hank Aimes, Josie's thoroughly conventional father, character actor Richard Jenkins, (whose 20 year career has included appearances in over 4 dozen films) delivers a noteworthy performance, subtly blending anger at his daughter's unconventional behavior with weary resignation about what he sees as the inevitable need to keep the gritty work his job requires in male hands. Jenkins presents a truly conflicted hard-hat, inarticulate and narrow minded in his judgments but infused with basic decency. His Hank almost makes North Country worth its ticket price since it comes paired with that of Francis McDormand, who delivers another Fargo like performance as Glory, one of Josie's friends and co-workers. Had she been given Theron's role and the script pruned of its more obvious soap-box elements, Caro's film just might have been worthy of the legitimate passion she obviously brought to the project. 

The verdict? Great topic, solid mechanics, but too Hollywood by half in its use of a glossy star to portray a hard drinking, plain spoken working woman.   

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