"North Country" Heads South in a Hurry
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2005 21 Oct
Release Date: October 21, 2005
Rating: R (sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and language)
Run Time: 126 min.
Director: Niki Caro
Actors: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins
"North Country," a tale of one woman’s crusade for equal treatment in a male-dominated workplace, has all the subtlety of a mediocre TV movie. The story, “inspired” by true events but veering far from the actual facts of the historic case on which it’s based, paints its main character as a misunderstood saint amidst vile villains with the worst of intentions.
The story is a slam-dunk: a wronged woman fights a lonely battle against entrenched attitudes and co-workers who treat her like dirt. Any wonder who to root for?
Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a single mother of two who finds work at an iron mine where male employees far outnumber the females. Josey is harassed from her first day on the job, forced to submit to a vaginal exam ruling out pregnancy, and taunted by a supervisor who’s heard she “looks … good under those clothes.”
Josey’s main advocate on the job, Glory (Frances McDormand), has learned to dish out as much rough talk as she receives, but even her position as a union representative isn’t enough to win respect for the women at the mine.
The verbal and physical abuse the women are subjected to is disgusting, but the film establishes this early on. Where can it go from there? Downhill – into seedier and seedier displays of depravity, carried out by some of the most despicable male characters in memory.
Josey finds legal recourse with the help of a reluctant lawyer (Woody Harrelson), one of the film’s few good guys, who agrees to represent her sexual harassment claim against the mining company. When an aggressive corporate attorney presses Josey about her sexual experience, secrets are revealed that force the skeptical townspeople, her own father and son, and viewers to reassess their view of Josey’s moral code.
The interaction between father and daughter provides "North Country" with its best moments. His slow transformation into her ally better illustrates Josey’s personal shame, quiet dignity and difficult life choices than does the main storyline about workplace equality. Nevertheless, it’s not enough to redeem the film, which builds to an orchestrated courtroom finale that strains credulity.
The film is being sold as a triumph of feminism, but its approach is simplistic and, at times, jarring. Director Niki Caro more than once inserts video and audio footage from the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings into the film, as a counterpart to Josey’s struggle. Whatever one may think today of the Thomas/Hill hearings, the American public at the time of the hearings was deeply divided over the validity of Hill’s allegations. Caro’s parallel between the two incidents may satisfy those who always were in Hill’s camp, but it will alienate viewers who are sympathetic to Josey’s plight, yet less than certain about the Thomas/Hill controversy.
On the plus side, Harrelson brings a refreshing likeability to one of the few honorable male characters in the film, and the acting from the rest of the stellar cast is good all around. The film is nicely shot by Chris Menges and powered by a provocative collection of Bob Dylan songs on the soundtrack.
- Language/Profanity: Gutter language in the workplace includes numerous mentions of every word in the book. Josey’s father wonders aloud whether she’s a lesbian; a woman accuses other males of being “homos.”
- Drugs/Alcohol: Characters drink at home, at work, and at the bar; Josey’s adolescent son drinks alone.
- Sex/Nudity: A rape; a woman undergoes a pregnancy check; Josey’s morals are questioned at every turn; life-affirming discussion about the struggles of an unwanted pregnancy.
- Violence: Josey is beaten and bloodied; a male employee grabs a female employee’s breast; Josey is physically attacked and verbally threatened by a male co-worker; a quarry conveyor belt is activated while Josey is trapped inside of it; a bar fight; a woman is soaked in human waste.