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