North Country was one of many women-targeted films released last October that failed commercially at the box office. Along with the romantic dramas Elizabethtown and In Her Shoes, North Country flamed out without finding an audience. Critical response was solid, but it lacked the volume of critical praise that an underdog movie like Crash received. Perhaps underdog is too strong a word—After all, the film just ripped the Best Picture Oscar from the mouth of expected winner Brokeback Mountain. I’ll spare you another tirade about the conservative homophobia that resulted in that “surprise” win, however I will say that (like Brokeback), North Country is a better movie than Crash . Don’t get me wrong: I liked Crash . Its storytelling was creative, the acting was solid and it raised many interesting questions. Overall, though, the movie felt kind of smug and self-satisfied about how smart it was and I was aware throughout that it was trying to manipulate my emotions. It’s a matter of taste, but I often prefer movies like North Country that are less showy about the issues they raise.
The issue here is sexual harassment and the film documents the first class-action lawsuit of this nature. The story follows Josie (Charlize Theron), a working class Minnesota mom of two, who has just left her abusive husband and is looking to strike out on her own. To support herself and her children, she takes a job at the nearly all-male mine where her father has worked all his life. In no time at all, Josie and the other women are enduring daily humiliation at the hands of their male co-workers and supervisors.
The film was crafted by multiple screenwriters, but director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) keeps the story focused and the material is compelling throughout. One of the strength’s of Caro’s film is that she has created a true ensemble piece here. While Theron is the star, the entire film is populated with great character actors doing what they do best: creating real people. Also, Caro makes the small-town, working class environment completely believable—in reality, it is another character in the story. At the center, Theron is terrific. I find the descriptions of her performance as taking on another “ugly” or “unglamorous” role both sexist and classist. She’s playing a mineworker, so there’s no reason for her to show up in Versace and a tiara—and why does working class have to equal ugly or un-sexy? Josie is attractive, and some of the derogatory comments and behaviors of her co-workers are directed at her physical attributes. Furthermore, the whole point of the movie is that these women aren’t being sexually harassed because of their looks, they’re being harassed because they’re women.
Theron’s performance is empathetic and her strength is credible throughout. Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) is marvelous as her taciturn father whose relationship with Josie is rocky to say the least. Frances McDormand (who, like Theron, was nominated for an Oscar for her work here) turns in an affecting portrayal of a tough mine veteran who takes Theron under her wing.
The film’s Hollywood moments are few and far between—only occasionally dipping too far into the sentiment well. What keeps the movie interesting is that the horrific variety of degradations Josie and her female colleagues are subjected to seem all too real. Some may feel that the film lingers on these horrors too long, but they are integral to the story. In addition, the film never feels one-sided because while there are plenty of despicable male characters, there are also some noble ones as well. It is to the film’s credit that it never feels like these nice guys are rescuing Josie. One of the best lines in the film is when Josie matter-of-factly declares that she doesn’t want to be taken care of. North Country distinguishes itself by creating a truly independent heroine who single-handedly effects great change.
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