North Country

North Country


Reviewed by: The Exile

American movies about women doing real work, as distinct from, say, wedding planning, are few and far between. Movies about poor, uneducated mothers forced to work punishing jobs are even rarer. So the arrival of North Country, a gutsy and well-made drama about the abuse suffered by female miners, is a special pleasure - perhaps less so for the costume designers, who haven't seen so many plaid shirts and steel-toed boots since the heady days of Norma Rae and Silkwood.

Unlike either of those films, however, North Country takes on the subject of institutionalised sexual harassment at its most primitive and bludgeoning. Set in and around the iron mines of Northern Minnesota between 1989 and 1991, when male miners still outnumbered females 30 to one, the film centers on Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a mother of two, fleeing an abusive husband.

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"Did he catch you with another man?" asks Josey's father, Hank (Richard Jenkins), a good Catholic, still smarting from the shame of her high school pregnancy. Josey's mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), is sympathetic but pragmatic. She knows women with children have few options and thinks Josey should "work it out."

Instead, she takes the advice of her friend, Glory (Frances McDormand), and goes to work in the local mine. Hated by the men and unprotected by the union, the female miners are routinely subjected to abuse, so extreme that a dildo in a locker and a faeces-smeared restroom add up to a good day. Groped and bullied, the women are assigned the filthiest jobs and frequently endangered by the men's disregard for safety procedures. The sadism of these scenes is deeply disturbing, and one sequence - offensively manipulated in the trailer to appear humorous, presumably to lighten the film's image - is so thoroughly sickening few women in the audience will remain unmoved.

North Country is inspired by the book Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law and the film's third act moves from the mine to the courtroom as Josey and her lawyer (played with unexpected modesty by Woody Harrelson) sue the mine owners. With Anita Hill's testimony playing on TV and a rousing Hollywood climax building momentum, the movie surrenders disappointingly to melodrama and overkill (does Glory have to be given a deadly disease? Does every single miner have to be a dickhead?) Yet so powerful is the film's sense of place and righteous anger even Hank's shamelessly manipulative union hall speech is more likely to choke you up than choke you off.

Supported by some of the best performances I've seen this year, Theron proves that last year's Oscar, for acting while ugly in Monster, was no fluke. All legs and shoulders, she finds the character's strength in a quietly unshowy way. Scenes with her teenage son (beautifully played by Thomas Curtis) are particularly affecting.

What finally raises the film above its somewhat programmatic, fight-the-power formula is its willingness to provide a believable context for the abuse. Making connections that a less intuitive or humane filmmaker might have ignored, New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) links the cruelty of the mine to a community that places female sexuality at the heart of every problem. From the callous, compulsory gynecological exam Josey is given by the company doctor to the shame her father feels over her situation, the film presents a culture riddled with regressive misogyny.

Muscular and absorbing, North Country draws much of its texture from Chris Menges' gorgeously naturalistic camerawork. His smoky shots of blasted earth and gnashing machinery, spraying explosions and blackened pits create an oppressively alien landscape hostile to man and woman alike. The film may be marketed as a chick flick, but if so it's the first one more concerned with breaking balls than admiring them.

Reviewed on: 18 Jan 2006
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One woman fights sexual harassment in the mines of Northern Minnesota.
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Read more North Country reviews:

David Stanners ***1/2
Chris ***

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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