North Country (2005) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality and strong language
Running Time: 126 min.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins, Sean Bean, Thomas Curtis, Jeremy Renner, Elle Peterson, James Cada, Michelle Monaghan, Xander Berkeley, Chris Mulkey
Director: Niki Caro
Screenplay: Michael Seitzman (inspired by events in the book, "Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law" by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler)
One should always take a movie that starts off with an "Inspired by a true story" blurb with a grain of salt, as the creative forces behind the film are basically admitting that they are going to be making liberal changes in the events of a true story and twisting them for their own agendas. Such is the case with North Country, a finely acted but excessively domineering anti-sexual harassment film that takes the noteworthy real-life case of Lois Jensen and turns it into borderline exploitation. Such a shame, as the events that led to the landmark ruling would have been interesting enough in and of themselves without the need for gross fictionalizations and moral posturing.
Now, before you jump all over me, in no way am I trying to take away the importance of the fight for equality, tolerance and protection for all people in the workplace. However, when the events presented in the film are laid on this thick, they lose their power by not taking the high road, effectively rendering a noble endeavor as tainted goods. The quality of the movie as a whole suffers for it, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.
The setting of the film is the North Country of Minnesota in the late 1980s, where spousal abuse victim Josey Aimes (Theron, The Italian Job) moves with her two children to start a new life closer to her parents. She is persuaded by her good friend Glory (McDormand, Something's Gotta Give) to become self-sufficient by taking a high paying job at the local iron mine, despite the fact that she knows the situation is tense thanks to new laws that prohibit discrimination of women from being allowed to work there. The men of the mine see the women as taking good jobs away from the men, and they harass them at every turn, calling them sexist and degrading names, making lewd comments, and compromising them physically when alone with them. Josey tries to speak out, which only makes their situation worse, and even the head of the company wants her to zip it or leave. With no options left, Josey leads a one-woman crusade to help protect the women of the mine, and try to restore her name, which has been tarnished by innuendo about her rumored promiscuous sex life.
I'm of two minds about the relative merit of North Country, admiring it for the solid acting and production values, but shying away from a rave recommendation due to its overbearing presentation and blatantly manipulative style. Ultimately, I do believe that it is a movie that should be seen, and if not for the aggressive Hollywood-ization of this significant true-life story, I might even consider it one of the better films of the year. Alas, director Niki Caro, who made an uplifting feminist piece that few could find fault with, Whale Rider, batters her themes home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, making what should be an interesting and thought-provoking exploration of the beginnings of the staunch sexual harassment laws in the workplace into an almost absurd "lone dog" social drama that is rarely found outside of a television movie of the week.
Despite the overcooked nature of things, there are still enough admirable qualities to North Country, coming especially from another solid Oscar-worthy performance from Charlize Theron, who makes her believable and likeable enough to root for, even if we know what the ultimate outcome will be. Richard Jenkins (Intolerable Cruelty, Changing Lanes) and Sissy Spacek (Tuck Everlasting, Blast from the Past) are also quite strong in supporting roles, while flashier performers like Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson (The Big White, After the Sunset) make the characters more interesting than they might be with different performers.
North Country is the kind of movie that usually gets made in order to secure the studio that produces it with a few Oscar nominations, and given the strength of some of the performances, perhaps it may earn a few in the acting categories. If only the film itself weren't marred by trying to win over viewers in taking already bad events and hyperbolizing their lurid content to make their side unimpeachable. Despite strong reservations, North Country is worth a look, yet it is far from worthy of all of the praise it has been receiving.
©2005 Vince Leo