Movie review by Greg Carlson
In “Whale Rider,” a wonderful feature, director Niki Caro’s success was built on her fierce devotion to the story’s characters, most of whom seemed alive with the nuances and details we recognize in our friends, family members, and ourselves. Sadly, that significant trait is absent in “North Country,” a disappointing, by-the-numbers drama that never manages to break out of its movie-of-the-week mold. What should have been an inspiring and richly observed tale of an underdog fighting for justice plays like a barely-veiled grab for Academy Award nominations and recognition as an important examination of social action.
Unlike “North Country’s” spiritual predecessor “Norma Rae,” depth is eschewed for virtual two-dimensionality, and the results are typically shrill and painfully transparent. Very loosely based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s “Class Action,” “North Country” reduces the landmark sexual harassment saga to a hilariously truncated game of connect the dots in which a final-act courtroom scene throws credibility to the wind (before a catatonic judge, witnesses are flipped, badgered, and literally screamed at). Even worse, the focus of the trial shifts from the iron mine’s complicity in the negative work climate to the plaintiff’s sexual past.
As Josey Aimes, Charlize Theron attempts another unglamorous transformation, but unlike “Monster,” “North Country” is content to glide along the surface of its primary character’s personal struggles. Theron manages to act her way around several unflattering bi-level shag and fe-mullet haircuts, but she falls short of convincing as a Minnesota ironworker. “North Country” also enlists Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, and Richard Jenkins, who turn in decent if forgettable work. Of the principal cast, Jenkins has the opportunity to play the strongest scene, a heartfelt admonishment to his “brothers” at an ugly union meeting.
In the plus column, veteran director of photography Chris Menges expertly captures the bleak austerity of the Iron Range, and Caro depicts the perils of mine work with a sense of queasy anticipation. The various indignities and humiliations visited upon the female employees, which range from disgusting verbal assaults to obscene encounters with excrement and semen, remind us that institutionalized sexism was (and in many cases, is still) an ongoing threat. Some of the harassing behavior turns physical, and one can only imagine how many other kinds of disgraceful encounters were endured.
It is frustrating, then, that “North Country” turns on a revelation from Josey’s past and not on her refusal to be silenced. The “big secret” that is disclosed in the course of the trial raises several issues that should not be ignored. It is only after the immaterial information comes to light that Josey’s co-workers stand with her against the mine. For the sake of cinematic drama, Josey is apparently more acceptable once the stigma of her “indiscretions” has been transformed into something that can be pitied. While it is certainly true that sometimes in life little things matter far more than they should, “North Country” squanders an opportunity to present a fictionalized account of a groundbreaking case without insisting that we make a saint out of a person who should have been recognized for merely asking to be treated with basic dignity and respect.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/24/05.