Directed by Niki Caro. Starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Jeremy Renner, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan. (2005, R, 123 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 21, 2005
Cut from much the same cloth as Norma Rae and Silkwood, North Country is a story about the rough knocks women have endured in the workplace and the conversion the protagonist undergoes while learning to fight for her rights. It’s emotionally charged and rousing stuff, especially when done well, which North Country does until it hits some third-act stumbles. The film is a fictionalized rendering of the landmark sex-discrimination case recounted in Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law. Although the film draws on the book for its facts, screenwriter Michael Seitzman resorts to fictional characters to illustrate this tale of our nation’s first successful class-action suit for sexual harassment. And if that topic doesn’t sound like material destined for box-office popularity, the inclusion of Oscar-winner Theron in the lead lends the subject an extra boost. Set in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, North Country features Theron as one of the first women ever to start working there in the mines in the Seventies. A battered woman with two children who leaves her husband at the beginning of the film, Josey (Theron) at first welcomes the unconventional job as a fresh opportunity to comfortably support herself and her children. But her newfound self-sufficiency takes a blow from the constant taunts and physical abuse the mineworkers heap on the handful of women who work there. The film is at its best when putting viewers in the position of feeling the smart of the abuse as the women do – moreover, its persistent and accumulative effect. Director Caro’s humanism comes through here as stunningly as it did in her breakthrough film Whale Rider. Caro is less adept, however, at handling the abusive characters, who tend to be one-note villains or silent minorities. Although Theron doesn’t disguise her good looks as dramatically as she did in Monster, she still does a decent job of looking like a glammed-down mineworker with her sooty coveralls and contempo shag hairdo. As her best friend who talks her into working at the mine, McDormand dons her best Fargo accent, but generally has too little to do. Likewise Spacek, as Josey’s mother, who is torn between her loyalties to her daughter and to her disapproving husband, who is also a mineworker. Harrelson does able duty as the attorney who thinks up the idea of filing a class-action suit, and it’s nice to see him performing in other than his usual slots as kook or romantic interest. Framed as a courtroom drama, this is where the movie begins to falter near the end as the plot developments grow ever more predictable and dramatically calculated – especially since this is also the point at which the family relationships start to unravel and seem much more interesting than the courtroom stage. A welcome and appropriate treat is the flurry of Bob Dylan tunes that can be heard playing in the background of this northern Minnesota story. It’s a film that’s truly about a "girl from the north country."