United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Jeremy Renner, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Thomas Curtis, Elle Peterson, Michelle Monaghan
Michael Seitzman, based on Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy
In the tradition of Norma Rae and Silkwood, North Country is the story of one woman's struggle against an inflexible corporation. Despite some third-act flaws that weaken the conclusion, North Country does what it sets out to do: inspire and uplift. It also provides a stark reminder of the inequities faced by women as they attempted (and continue to attempt) to achieve equal footing with their male counterparts in the workforce. 1989 (the year in which the bulk of the film transpires) isn't that long ago. Many things have changed since then; sadly, the cultural shift has not penetrated into the darkest recesses of some areas of employment.
North Country states that it is "inspired by true events." "Inspired" is probably as good as any description, since the film's relationship to the real world is thin. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is a fictionalized version of Lois Jensen. While some of the facts of the case and the general setting mirror those of the historical account, most of what ended up in Michael Seitzman's screenplay is fictional. I have no problem with that - it makes for a better story - but this is a cautionary note to those who believe they are watching a docu-drama. (I really wish movie studios would cease-and-desist with "based on true story" captions - they do nothing to strengthen the narrative and often spark debates about the "accuracy" of the screenplay, when that's usually a red herring.)
It's 1989 in the North Country of Northern Minnesota, where iron mining represents the lifeblood of many communities. Fleeing an abusive relationship, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) returns to her childhood community with her two kids, Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and Karen (Elle Peterson), in tow. Her mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), is delighted to see her, but her father, Hank (Richard Jenkins), is not about to kill the fatted calf. After spending some time scraping together a few dollars working at a local hair salon, Josey is persuaded by her friend, Glory (Frances McDormand), to apply at the iron mine. Although the ratio of men-to-women is 30:1, and the men are at times openly hostile to their female co-workers (they believe the women are "taking away" men's jobs), the pay is six times better than what Josey can make styling hair.
The conditions Josey encounters are beyond what she is capable of quietly bearing (although that is the advice she gets from more than one corner). She takes charges of harassment to her boss and is told to return when she has a real problem. The company CEO tells her to resign, advice which she eventually takes, but only after hiring a lawyer, Bill White (Woody Harrelson). Bill's idea is to pursue the first class action lawsuit for sexual harassment. But will any of the other women working at the mine stand alongside Josey?
On a dramatic level, North Country works for most of its running length. Josey's story is compelling. She's the classic underdog fighting against the implacable corporation. She's on the side of right and the forces of evil are aligned against her. Bolstered by a solid performance from Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, Josey is a three-dimensional woman - a single mother fighting to provide for her children, and a daughter trying to earn her father's approval. To the extent that we have all been underdogs at one time or another in the workplace, we identify with Josey.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) does not attempt an evenhanded portrayal of events. The story is presented unapologetically from Josey's vantage point. The mining company and the men are the bad guys. (Not all of the men, of course, but a sizeable percentage of them.) Some of the things they do to Josey and her friend, Shelly (Michelle Monaghan), are reprehensible. One of the most effective and touching aspects of the story is the way Josey's father, Hank, finds himself caught in the middle - and eventually must choose sides. His emotional speech in front of a union meeting is one of North Country's high points, both emotionally and dramatically.
There are weaknesses. A key scene late in the movie between Sammy and Glory's husband, Kyle (Sean Bean), doesn't ring true. I didn't believe anything in this scene; every action and line of dialogue is contrived. The court proceedings - to the extent that we see them - are generic and unsatisfying. And, of course, we have the Big Dramatic Moment in which the tide turns. The last scene is odd, with the court case left unresolved (a closing caption tells us what happened). Instead, we get a "domestic" moment that would have worked better if it hadn't been used to close the film. It's as if someone recognized that the running time was north of two hours and the proceedings had to be stopped immediately before viewers became restless.
Solid acting abounds, but one would expect no less with a cast of this caliber. For the most part, the accents are well done, as well. (Sean Bean has a few problems; for Frances McDormand, it's piece of cake, taking her back into Fargo territory.) Charlize Theron may get an Oscar nomination for her work here, although the performance is not as intense or memorable as the one she gave in Monster. McDormand and Woody Harrelson provide solid support. Sissy Spacek is underused, and doesn't add much. But the one I want to single out is character actor Richard Jenkins, who is superb. Jenkins' portrayal of Josey's conflicted father is believable and powerful. Jenkins is one of those actors whose face is more familiar than his name. He has appeared in more than 60 movies and TV productions, and is probably best known for a supporting role in Flirting with Disaster and as a member of the ensemble cast for Six Feet Under. He deserves official recognition for his work in North Country.
Director Caro is a woman with a social conscience. Like Whale Rider, North Country is a personal drama with strong political overtones. Because of the flawed ending, I would judge North Country to be the weaker of the two movies, but it's refreshing to see a foreign director come to Hollywood and not cave in to pressure to make something sub-par just to get a product "out there." North Country is not a perfect motion picture, but it is stirring and emotionally forceful and, while that may not make it an Oscar contender, it makes it worth a trip to the multiplex.