Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 19, 2005
North Country
Starring Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, and Frances McDormand. Directed by Niki Caro. Written by Michael Seitzman, based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s book. Rated R.
Rightfully Mine

Good atmosphere and cast can’t keep the drama from getting lost in North Country.


Imagine you’re a New Zealander. Specifically, imagine growing up on the eastern coast of the North Island, with its mild temperatures, sandy beaches, and hot springs. If you come from a place like that, the American midwest in winter must look as exotic to you as the surface of the moon. This explains the visual style that Niki Caro gives to North Country, her follow-up to her successful 2002 film Whale Rider. The New Zealander shot North Country in Minnesota, and she views the state’s locations like they’re alien landscapes: the snow-covered forests, the Slovakian Oktoberfest, the hockey games, the bars festooned with deer heads. The way she makes this familiar atmosphere seem fresh and new is one of the best things about this flawed piece of work.

It’s based loosely on Class Action, Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s book about the sexual-harassment lawsuit filed in the 1980s by the female workers at the Mesabi Iron Range. Charlize Theron stars as Josey Aimes, a mother of two who’s recently divorced from an abusive husband. She catches a big break when she’s hired for one of her town’s few well-paying jobs, working in the local mine. Her initial sense of self-sufficiency curdles, though, when she realizes that the male miners see her and her female colleagues as taking opportunities from other men. Obscenities, sexual come-ons, and far worse are in store for her, and Josey only makes things worse by insisting she be treated with dignity.

In addition to Caro’s convincing depiction of the dirty, unglamorous work in the mine, the movie’s main strength is its cast. Theron isn’t as shockingly good here as she was in Monster, but she does fine, fully committed work and maintains a firm grip on her Minnesota accent. She’s kept on her toes by a great many strong presences in the supporting cast — Woody Harrelson as Josey’s lawyer, Sissy Spacek as her mother, Rusty Schwimmer and Michelle Monaghan as female miners who tell her to take the abuse, and Frances McDormand as a union rep trying to keep the peace. Arguably the best acting here comes from Richard Jenkins as Josey’s dad, a miner who opposes her working in the mine until he attends a union meeting, sees firsthand what kind of crap she’s taking, and finally stands up for her.

North Country aims to be a one-woman-against-the-system drama in the mold of Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich, but this movie has a lot on its plate, and Caro isn’t quite dexterous enough to manage it all. The revelation of Josey being raped as a schoolgirl seems like it belongs in another movie. The same goes for the mentoring character played by Sean Bean, who tries for a midwestern accent and winds up somewhere between Newcastle and Edinburgh. The courtroom theatrics are stilted, and the attempt at a rousing finale is a painful misfire. It’s a shame that the movie fizzles so badly, because it has a great deal to recommend it otherwise.

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