North Country


Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 
North Country
Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 

Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron, "Monster") is a single mom with two kids to feed so she turns to the hard life she grew up around, mining.  Josey can endure the hard labor, but not the unfair treatment she receives because she is a woman.  The strength she's built up over the years helps her stand her ground, even if she must stand alone, and take her employer to court where she will fight a landmark battle against sexual harassment in "North Country."

Laura:
Director Niki Caro follows up her huge success with "Whale Rider" with another film about a woman fighting for a place that is traditionally male.  But Josey, who like Whale Rider Pai, must face paternal disapproval, moves through a far more treacherous environment, the misogynistic traditions of northern Minnesota present not only at Pearson's Iron Works, but pervading the entire community.  Caro's film is well cast, Theron once again successful in a deglamorized role, but "North Country" loses its momentum once the action fully switches to the climatic trial.

Michael Seitzman's ("Here on Earth") screenplay, based on "Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law" by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, converts the experiences of Lois Jensen, the first woman employed at the Eveleth Mines in 1975, to Josey, hired at the fictional Pearson in 1989, when, we are told, the ratio of men to women is still thirty to one (but, mistakenly, two years before Anita Hill, whose television testimony punctuates the film, accused supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment).  The film begins as Josey leaves an abusive husband, driving her kids, teenaged Sammy and young Karen, many miles back home where her father, Hank (Richard Jenkins, "Shall We Dance"), inspects her bruised face and asks 'did he find you with another man?'  Mother Alice (Sissy Spacek, "In the Bedroom") is more supportive, but has old school notions of where a woman's place is.  After Josie's fortuitous run-in with old friend Glory (Frances McDormand, "Laurel Canyon"), who is now a union rep and truck driver at Pearson's, Josie is convinced to go work where her dad has toiled for years and make 'the real money.'

Caro then starts up with the traditional courtroom movie structure, flashing forward to Josie's testimony before dramatizing the events she talks about, the first being a gynecological exam to determine if she's pregnant before she's hired.  At first day orientation, HR rep Arlen Pavich (Xander Berkeley, "Shanghai Noon," TV's "24") informs Josie that the doc said 'she looked darned good under those clothes,; responding to her shocked face with a jovial 'Humor, ladies!,' a first indication of a bumpy road ahead.  Things go downhill quickly when Josie finds herself reporting to Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner, "Dahmer," "S.W.A.T."), an old high school acquaintance she's obviously uncomfortable around - is he the father of Sammy, whose paternity Josie says she does not know?  Josie thinks she's got a safety net after Don Pearson (James Cada, "Joe Somebody") himself asks if she's 'one of his girls' at a local eatery, offering her an open door should she have a problem, but by the time she's driven there by intimidation that's crossed a line into physical danger, the only door Pearson offers is the exit door.  Josie turns to Bill White (Woody Harrelson, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio"), the local hockey legend turned lawyer introduced to her as a romantic possibility by Glory and her husband Kyle (Sean Bean, "The Island"), to represent her. Bill demurs, until he realizes he can become a trail blazer by prosecuting the first class action sexual harassment case.  There's only one problem - even though the judge determines they need only three additional witnesses, the employees of Pearson Iron Works are all fearful of retaliation.

Caro does a great job building her story.  As in "Whale Rider," she excels at defining a close knit community of shared religious and sporting rites.  She lays on the harassment gradually, even subtly, from both internal and external sources (Sharp's wife calls Josie a whore at a high school hockey game, causing friction between Josie and her son Sammy; 'Lay Lady Lay' is the song prominently playing throughout a scene of weekend camaraderie at the neighborhood watering hole).  But as the trial becomes the current, rather than flash-forward, action, Caro loses her grip, primarily because the focal point of the trial is not what happened in the mines but the paternity of Sammy.  While the revelation of who was responsible and how is truly perspective shifting, it is still anticlimactic, having occurred over a decade before immediate events. Caro cannot match the tension she achieved showing Bobby sending Josie 'up the tube,' like Robert DeNiro directing Lorraine Braco down an alley in "Goodfellas," or Sherry (Michelle Monaghan, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang") being caged and buffeted in a hard won portapotty.

Additionally, too many character turnarounds come too abruptly.  When Alice finally rebels against Hank, all it takes is the note and wrapped sandwich she leaves behind and the lifelong misogynist finally stands up for his daughter.  It is not clear who Kyle is until at least his second scene and Bill is introduced as a potential suitor but left a seeming opportunist, albeit a good lawyer (Harrelson, once again defending the underdog in a sexually charged case).

Theron, sporting a "Klute" style shag, once again disappears into a unglamorous role, yet this time she maintains girlish sensibilities.  Branded a 'complainer' by Peg (Jillian Armenante, "Girl, Interrupted"), Theron's Josie is tough but not above tears and a believable mom.  Spacek is terrific as a religious woman who is not changing with the times but recognizes the importance of standing by family.  McDormand is also strong as the union rep who values diplomacy over feminism and who suffers from the physical degeneration of Lou Gehrig's disease as the film progresses.  Monaghan, in an outmoded Farrah do, makes a stronger impression supporting here as the sexy nineteen year-old Sherry than in her "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang" lead. Monaghan plays the character's youth just right - fearful, yet provoked, innocent but alluring. Rusty Schwimmer ("Runaway Jury") and Armenante are the large women who may or may not be the 'lesbians' male colleagues refer to, the former swaying towards supporting Josie, the latter a believer in keeping quiet.  Linda Emond ("Dark Water") slyly slips feminist subtext into her portray of Pearson's defence attorney Leslie Conlin.

In the male roles, Harrelson's Bill is opaque, neither here nor there.  Bean plays the 'good male,' Glory's loving husband who makes his living outside of the mine while Renner is his polar opposite, a sleazy snake of a guy with no moral fiber.  Their respective counterparts are played by Corey Stoll as the mine's token decent guy, Ricky Sennett and Chris Mulkey ("Mysterious Skin") as its overt creep Earl Slangley.  Jenkins is strong in the role of Josie's father despite having to make that abrupt about face.  The actor naturally supplies the frustrating male posturing that would have a man support his daughter's 'right' to make her own way in the world, but not in any available job that would support her doing so.

Caro paints the blue collar world of "North Country" believably, a more industrialized, rural version of Minnesota than we saw in McDormand's "Fargo."  Cinematographer Chris Menges's ("The Good Thief") soaring overhead shots capture the lay of the land and the cool changes of season.  Production design by Richard Hoover ("The Mothman Prophecies") and art direction by Gregory S. Hooper ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith's" set designer) present the well-rooted homes and work places of a mining community.

"North Country" makes a convincing case for sexual harassment laws and the power of a united front, but its structure front-loads the evidence in flashforwards, weakening its climax as a battle over Josie's decade old sexual history rather than an indictment against the injustice in the mines.

B-

Robin:
Before 1979 there were no women employed in the male-dominated iron ore mines of northern Minnesota. Ten years later, though women were finally employed as miners, the ratio was only 30 to 1, male to female. One such woman, Josie Aimes (Charleze Theron), took one of those precious jobs and soon learned the real meaning of sexual harassment in “North Country.”

Josie has escaped an abuse-riddled marriage and moved, with her two children, into her parents’ home up north in iron country. She is prepared to endure the backbreaking labor and long hours that working in the mines requires but isn’t prepared for the hate and harassment by her male counterparts. She and the few other ladies working the mines must endure sexual advances, foul innuendo and physical abuse or leave.

For Josie the job means that she can make a life for her and her kids. At first, she accepts the chauvinistic attitude and abuse by the male miners but things escalate and the attacks take on a hateful form. She seeks the help of the mining company owner to stop the harassment but is only offered the chance to waive giving two weeks notice and immediately terminate her job. She refuses the “offer” and returns to the mines but the hatred and slander has filtered down to her family, driving a wedge between Josie and her son, Sammy (Thomas Curtis).

Finally, Josie has had enough of the sexual harassment, quits her job and hires a former local hockey star turned lawyer, Bill White (Woody Harrelson) to bring justice against the mining company. This begins the David versus Goliath portion of “North Country” as Bill struggles to bring a sexual harassment class action suit against the powerful company and its phalanx of attorneys led by a woman lawyer.

North Country” is a film of two unequally weighted parts. The best of it, Josie’s entry into the iron mining business, the hard work and harsh treatment by the majority of her male coworkers is by far the more intriguing and well handled portion. When she quits and brings suit against the company the ensuing courtroom battle devolves into the routine, as she must face the ire of the community as Bill makes her case and desperately tries to get other femme miners to speak up for Josie and themselves.

Director Niki Caro made quite a splash, internationally, with her contemporary story about a young Maori girl who fights to fulfill her destiny with “Whale Rider.” She departs, radically, from this little, personal film and takes to Hollywood to give a fictional account about a real-life class action suit that made history when the courts found in favor of the plaintiffs in their accusations of sexual harassment in a big mining company.

Charleze Theron takes on the task of playing the lead character, Josie Aimes, in her first starring role since her Oscar win for her stunning performance in Monster.” The actress doesn’t hide her beauty as Josie but looks and acts the blue-collar role well enough. She is surrounded by a capable cast that, in part one of “North Country,” helps build up the tension as Josie and the other women in the company submit to the rampant male chauvinism.

Oscar winner Frances McDormand gives an effective performance as Josie’s friend, coworker and union representative. Glory is one tough lady but succumbs to what appears to be a bad case of arthritis that turns out to be Lou Gehrig’s disease and the actress creates a fully formed and sympathetic character. Woody Harrelson is fine as lawyer Bill White and is one of the best things in part two’s courtroom battle. Sissy Spacek, as Josie’s mom, does a terrific job giving nuance and feeling to a role that others may have just walked through. Other character actors – Richard Jenkins as Josie’s disapproving father who does a complete turnaround; Sean Bean plays a good, honest man as Glory’s husband, Kyle; Jeremy Renner, as sexist pig and Josie’s former teen boyfriend, evokes appropriate disgust; Michelle Monaghan, as one of the other abused ladies, shows some acting chops; the rest of the cast fills things in credibly if only in two dimensions.

The production aspects of part one effectively show the harsh north country of the title, using veteran cinematographer Chris Menges capable eye to capture the harsh working conditions of the mines. Good use of overhead shots showing the unforgiving landscape is a big plus in depicting the mining environs and the ugliness of the job. Unfortunately, when things turn to the courtroom, both production and intriguing story turn routine and unexciting.

Niki Caro shows talent in mustering her sizable cast and telling Josie’s story. This whole tale of sexual harassment is well handled and unfolds with appropriate tension. The script, by Michael Seitman (adapted from the real-life book, Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy), is solid when in and around the iron mines but falls flat when it turns to the actual courtroom drama. The latter becomes a rah-rah women-empowered finale that we have seen all too many times before.

If the whole of “North Country” had maintained the tensions and angst that were so well built up in part one, it could have been a pretty remarkable work. The sizzle so well done in part one fizzles out in part two of the film. I give it a B-.
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