North Country

North Country


Reviewed by: Chris

1975. A single mother, working in the Minnesota iron mines, is subjected to relentless sexual harassment by men who blame women for "stealing their jobs". North Country is very loosely based on a landmark US sexual harassment case of the Eighties and much of the story is told in the form of courtroom flashbacks.

Charlize Theron plays long-suffering Josey Aimes, struggling to raise three children on the wages of a hairdresser's assistant. She chats to Glory (Frances McDormand), who points out that the mine would offer her a six fold increase in salary. It doesn't take long for Josey to change jobs.

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A litany of sexual harassment follows. At an ice hockey match, shortly after she has repulsed the advances of a lecherous miner, the miner's wife loudly insults her, accusing her of being a "miner whore trying to steal husbands." At this point, the harassment also impacts upon the lives of Josey's children, who feel the brunt of lies and public insults levelled at their mother.

Glory, a hardened personality who is on the miners' union as a token female, seems better able to handle the men's taunts. At one session, where she has managed to negotiate essential Portacabin toilets for the women, a union man asks her salaciously what the men will get "in return" for such a concession. Wittily she retorts with mock puzzlement, hasn't he heard that there will be a fifty percent discount (she alludes to oral sex) for everyone - except him?

Glory's steely exterior is not mirrored by Josey's more fragile character. Later, we learn of events in her early life that might explain, quite reasonably, a lessened ability to handle male threats. She is not able to "take a joke," as the men disingenuously suggest, and the miners' taunts reduce her to a state of constant fear.

As a one-topic theme, the movie is excellent. Many different faces and degrees of sexual harassment are depicted. In the UK, when changes were made to the law, the Department of Trade and Industry said, "We consider that the best way of ensuring that employers and individuals know their responsibilities and rights in this complex area . . . is through practical guidance to help interpret the legislation. This guidance . . . will contain examples which draw on the wide range of existing case law." Actual examples enable the viewer to imagine situations arising, be more aware of them as instances of harassment (and the suffering they can cause), and think of constructive alternative behaviour, and cinema can make an important contribution.

Yet there is no subtlety. The film engages us emotionally with an important topic and then proceeds in the manner of a glossy case study. The poster, reminiscent of Nicole Kidman in Dogville, depicts Theron without make-up, head tied in a scarf, with signs of emotional fatigue. Whereas Dogville was a profoundly intellectual film that also dealt with sexual harassment, North Country has the emotional dynamic, if not of Flashdance, then of Dangerous Minds, at most.

Dogville played to small audiences. North Country, largely due to the stellar cast, which also includes Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson and Sissy Spacek, and a Hollywood plot formula - Josey decides to stand up and be counted, providing the emotional, if unbelievable, reward for audiences that have endured nearly two hours of heartbreak - has achieved much wider publicity. Unlike Dogville, which ideally requires repeated viewings, North Country's story can be followed with half a brain. Although the acting is capable and very watchable, the script and direction is wooden and predictable.

Can a film about a social ill have a major effect on how we handle that ill in society? In North Country, the question is perhaps more relevant than usual, partly because the film covers a single issue and secondly because we are forced to ask ourselves whether to judge it as stand-alone art/entertainment, or rate it higher because we believe it serves a necessary social function. Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home, for instance, is widely regarded as being influential in the momentum that caused government policy reform on housing and poverty. It achieved that for a number of reasons, not least because by watching the movie one felt indelibly scarred. North Country, on the other hand, has a warm and fuzzy emotional tone and is generally suitable for family viewing (adolescents upwards).

The official website takes the fight against sexual harassment one stage further: a linked Stand Up and Participate campaign, including one of the more insightful pieces of advice: "If you want to stop violence against women, reach out to a boy in your life" (offering advice on parenting and "coaching boys into men"). With a 15-certificate, it will only be seen by older teenagers and, sadly, it is a film that will appeal mostly to women, missing that sector of working-class males that it portrays.

Although North Country is enjoyable enough, it fails to stir the imagination on purely cinematic grounds. The sincerity of cast and crew seems palpable and, together with DVD sales and maybe even classroom showings, we can only hope that this worthy project will yield fruit and become the milestone of cinematic exploration on sexual harassment that it aspires to be.

However, it displays neither the consummate skill of Erin Brockovich, nor the naked terror of The Accused, and, from its lacklustre execution, may simply fail to be sufficiently noticed.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2006
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North Country packshot
One woman fights sexual harassment in the mines of Northern Minnesota.
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Read more North Country reviews:

The Exile ****
David Stanners ***1/2

Director: Niki Caro

Writer: Michael Seitzman, based on Class Action: The Story Of Lois Jensen And The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Thomas Curtis, Elle Peterson, Jeremy Renner, James Cada

Year: 2005

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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