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20th Century Fox

Official Site

Director: Niki Caro

Producers: Nana Greenwald, Jeff Skoll, Nick Wechsler

Written by: Michael Seitzman; from book by Clara Bingham & Laura Leedy Gansler

Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek


North Country is the first American feature from Niki Caro, the gifted New Zealand director of Whale Rider. Once again, Caro proves that she is one of the finest young talents today at depicting a family’s inner struggles, moving us with simplicity and realism.

Inspired by a true story about the first class action lawsuit against sexual harassment in the United States, the film begins in a courtroom around 1991 (during the same time as the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings). Josey (Theron) is suing a powerful mining company in northern Minnesota where she has worked as a common laborer, enduring countless sexual insults and physical attacks from her male co-workers.

Immediately, Theron reminds us why she won an Oscar less than two years ago for her gutsy performance in Monster. Here she is delicate and sexy, iron-willed and heartbreaking all at the same time. She plays a simple woman who wants nothing more than to live a decent life for herself and provide for her children.

Beaten by her husband and disrespected by her parents and neighbors, she desperately seeks the independence, financial and emotional, which so many men never had to fight for. This is a feminist’s film, no doubt about it. And in the spirit of Norma Rae and Silkwood, North Country will bring more attention to women in the workplace who bravely take the risk of telling the truth. But North Country isn’t preachy, and there are enough admirable male characters to make the guys feel at home, too. Nevertheless, the bullies are somewhat one-dimensional sketches. These guys are bad, their hostility almost too outrageous to imagine, though Caro does give them some humanity in the end. But mining is a very male-dominated industry, even today. And sadly women were vilified for believing they had both the right as well as the physical characteristics necessary to carry out the kind of hard labor that work in a mine requires.

The film also boasts outstanding, nuanced performances by a gifted group of supporting actors, with Caro’s deft direction giving each of them a fair amount of screen space to chew. Frances McDormand, whom Fargo fans will warmly welcome with another pitch-perfect Minnesota accent, brings humor and pathos to her performance as Josey’s closest friend who ends up suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sean Bean lends soft-spoken grace to a performance which diverges refreshingly from his typical casting as the hero’s arch-nemesis. Woody Harrelson is terrific as an older high school hockey star who left home to become a New York lawyer. His performance is dead-on, bringing to mind another courtroom drama in which he shined magnificently, The People Vs. Larry Flynt.

Unfortunately, the great Sissy Spacek is used sparingly in the film as Josey’s mother. She’s tough and somewhat icy, not unlike her character in In the Bedroom. But in North Country she’s found God, though she surprises us in the end with her depth of character and strength. Richard Jenkins (“Six Feet Under”) as Josey’s father, is equally complex in a performance which, in the end, might just be the film’s most moving.

Throughout the film, Josey’s angry and embittered teenage son is a constant worry, and the screenwriter (Michael Seitzman), maintains an effective mother-son battle which gives the film even more potency. The gentle film score by newcomer Gustavo Santaolalla is understated and original, but some of the songs in the soundtrack are misplaced and overused. Still, it’s always great to hear Bob Dylan coming throught the loudspeakers. Chris Menges’ cinematography is gritty and realistic, just what the script calls for. I can still see the snow-covered roads, images dancing across my mind, of moving earth and the filth and vastness of the great mine.

Though the final courtroom scene is derivative of many other courtroom/triumph dramas, in its manipulation it doesn’t overwhelm its own effectiveness. Before the curtain is drawn, women will cheer. And though men may cringe at the injustice of their shameful behavior, ultimately they will cheer, too. This is a movie to be savored and talked about. Though it doesn’t hit every note pitch-perfectly, it brings humanity and artistry to an important historical precedent and reminds us all that standing up and telling the truth may be difficult sometimes, but it’s always better than pretending.

—Tiffany Crouch Bartlett

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