Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Jeremy Renner, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Elle Peterson, Thomas Curtis
MPAA Rating: (for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language)
Running Time: 2:06
Release Date: 10/21/05
Review by Mark Dujsik
There are three levels to North Country: a courtroom melodrama, a workplace expose, and a domestic study. The courtroom material is typical and has people acting in court in ways they only do in movies. The details of the expose are disquieting although depicted in fairly simplistic terms. Which leaves us with the domestic study, and it's on this level that Niki Caro's otherwise conventional reality-based drama finds its greatest success. Unrelentingly honest, the personal portrait of the woman at the center of this tale of the first successful class-action sexual harassment law suit in the United States and how the events affect her family are far more involving than the important social movement in which she becomes entangled. The film hits its larger, more important notes with a predictable efficiency. As the women of the Northern Minnesota iron mine encounter humiliation after humiliation at the hands of some of their male co-workers, the movie manages to elicit a gut reaction of shock and revulsion but not much beyond that. Whatever depth may be absent from this bigger picture is well made up by the layers of emotional strain faced by the film's heroine and the performance of Charlize Theron.
When we first see Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), she is hiding her daughter Karen (Elle Peterson) from her husband, who has just returned home in a rage. She awakens later, bruised and beaten, and finally takes Karen and her son Sammy (Thomas Curtis) out of the house and drives back home to Northern Minnesota. There, she takes up residence with her father Hank (Richard Jenks) and mother Alice (Sissy Spacek) and reunites with Glory (Frances McDormand), an old friend from high school. Glory works at the local iron mine, where Josey's father has also been gainfully employed for as long as Josey can remember. They have recently started to hire women, and the opportunity to start a new life with her children on her own has finally presented itself. Hank is none too happy with his daughter's decision, but she goes ahead anyway, as he has never really approved of her life since she was in high school. The recent appearance of women in a predominately male-driven industry has not gone over well with some of the employees, who neither have nor are willing to become accustomed to the idea of the opposite sex working alongside them.
The abuse is fairly nonstop for the women of the mine. They must cope with vulgar verbal innuendo and worse, disgusting "pranks" like having demeaning words painted in excrement on their locker room walls or semen on their clothes, and, as the situation elevates, actual physical attacks. Most of the women, like Glory, have learned to deal with—not condone—the earlier mentioned harassment and recognize that rocking the boat would more than likely only make matters worse for them. For Josey, though, returning home after freeing herself from an abusive husband and having to face more cruelty is simply too much. Adding insult to injury, these people know her and, even worse, think they know her character. One of her co-workers is an ex-boyfriend named Bobby (Jeremy Renner), who was with Josey when she became pregnant with her son, and after Josey rejects his advances, he turns the story around on her, sending his wife to confront Josey in the very public forum of Sammy's hockey game. For a town in Northern Minnesota, she might as well have published her accusations in the local newspaper, and with her reputation already tainted in the eyes of her neighbors for having a child young and out-of-wedlock, the outburst is even more devastating.
Fortunately, there's a lawyer in town. His name is Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a former hockey star of the town, who has just come home to regroup after a failed marriage. Josey appeals for his services to bring a lawsuit against the mining company, and in flash-forwards and later regular narrative, we see the proceedings of the case. The brief moments we see of the case during Josey's plight at the mine help flesh out her character, but the later scenes where the trial takes focus are merely the means to bring social relevance to the story. As is such, we have the usual moments. White badgers one witness in a way that, while dramatic, would never fly in any court, and later, in a moment that if it came earlier would sink the film, a large group of people in the courtroom take the phrase "standing up for someone" too literally. However, as the trial reveals Josey's troubled past, the film spends enough time exploring how these revelations affect her relationships at home to make up for the more familiar sections. Watching Hank slowly begin to side with his daughter is truly affecting, and after Sammy's origins are made public in court, there's a wrenchingly honest scene between mother and son on the back porch as she tries to explain who he is to her.
Theron has really come into her own as an actress over the past few years, slowly disintegrating her image as just another pretty face, and her work North Country is quite possibly her best. Here, she walks the line between the strength of taking on a system with which hardly anyone sees a huge problem and the vulnerability of a woman who must face everything that has piled up on her over the years head-on. She is the wounded heart of the film and helps carry some of the less successful material of the film on her shoulders.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.