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North Country (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 21 October 2005
Stanley Kramer lives. “North Country,” which I assumed was one of the sure things of 2005, is a major disappointment, a Hollywoodized treatment of a very serious topic—sexual harassment in blue-collar workplaces. It’s very loosely based on the landmark case in the 1980s, where several women, particularly Lois Jenson, sued their iron-mining company over the crude, even brutal sexual taunting they received from their male coworkers. It was a long court battle—eleven years—and it was so hard on the women involved that some have never recovered since the verdict was handed down in 1989. It was a landmark case and changed the way America does business—on all levels.

There’s certainly material there for a worthwhile movie, perhaps a several-episode miniseries. The court decision in favor of the women was influential, but this kind of thing still goes on. Men still think they can make lewd sexual jokes about women they barely know, right in front of the women. The permissiveness about this boys-will-be-boys behavior is hard to root out, even out of ourselves.

Warner Bros. brought a lot to the table for “North Country.” It’s Charlize Theron’s most significant role since winning the Oscar for “Monster,” and Frances McDormand employs a variation on the Minnesota accent she used so wonderfully in “Fargo.”

But as scripted by Michael Seitzman and directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), “North Country” reduces all issues to broad strokes, ruthlessly compresses the time scale, sentimentalizes the struggle of the lead character, and climaxes with one of the most outrageously unbelievable courtroom scenes in recent movie history. The movie opens and closes with aerial views of this area of Minnesota, the opening scenes wintry and foreboding, the closing scenes verdant with the promise of spring. This clichéd approach is, unfortunately, typical of the whole film.

Theron is Josey Aimes, in her early thirties, living in small-town Minnesota. She has two kids by different fathers, but not by her husband. He beats her up (off screen) so she packs the kids and returns home to her parents, Hank (Richard Jenkins) and Alice (Sissy Spacek). Her father immediately assumes that her husband threw her out because of adultery, which shocks Josey.

She gets a low-paying job as a beautician, which leads to an encounter with old friend Glory (Frances McDormand). Glory, a tough customer, drives trucks for Pearson, a strip-mining company producing taconite, a low-grade iron ore. The company policy has changed—used to be that they didn’t employ women in blue-collar jobs, but now they have to. There’s only a few women in the factory, and they’re a little suspicious of Josey.
She’s not happy to find Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner) working there; they’d gone together in high school (there are flashbacks), but she’s never really liked him. It doesn’t help matters when he welcomes her to the job by grabbing her butt. That’s only the beginning of the sexist behavior visited on her and the other women almost daily. Even Josey’s father thinks she’s “taken” a job from a more deserving man, and glowers at her in the lunch room.

Glory and her husband Kyle (Sean Bean) give Josey a lot of support; mine worker Kyle was injured on the job and now repairs watches. They try to get her together with high school hockey star Bill White (Woody Harrelson), who became a lawyer and moved to New York. Now he’s back, though it’s never made clear why, or even what he does to earn money.

When laughing workmen turn over a port-a-pottie with Sherry (Michell Monaghan) still in it, Josey finally tries to do something about the situation. But the owner (James Cada) of the mining company brushes her off. At work, the women find semen on their clothes in their lockers, foul words written on the walls with feces, and steady sexual harassment. So Josey sues.

There are occasional flash-forwards throughout the film to the big trial scene that forms the climax. But this scene is handled so badly, with so much unbelievable courtroom antics by both the mine’s (woman) lawyer and Bill, appearing for Josey, that it’s simply unacceptable.

The first third to half of the movie is quite good; the issues are set up clearly, and the characters are interesting. But in the second half the movie goes out of control and crashes in a flaming heap. Josey is presented as being so utterly right and good about everything that she ceases to be a human character and becomes an angelic paradigm. What, she can’t get mad at the kids over something? She can’t be WRONG about something?

The widescreen photography by Chris Menges is strong throughout, using real locations and authentic-looking interiors (production designer: Richard Hoover). The music is by Gustavo Santaolalla, and uses a lot of existing songs, including several by Bob Dylan—a Minnesota native. Some of the songs are right on, such as “Girl of the North Country,” others seem inappropriate to the material, like “Lay, Lady Lay.”

What should have been a solid drama—I expected this to be one of the best movies of the year—turns into a manipulative melodrama. Josey can’t find any woman to side with her (Lois Jenson did); Glory would but she comes down with Lou Gerhig’s disease. (The movie is shamelessly contrived.) We eventually learn that Josey’s oldest child, her belligerent, unforgiving son (Thomas Curtis), was the result of rape—by a fat and ugly teacher. This is just another crude pitch for audience sympathy—as if Theron’s performance wouldn’t have gotten it to begin with.

Not only does Glory get sick, a distracting problem, but finally Alice moves out from Hank. Why? We shouldn’t be worrying about them, but about Josey and the lawsuit.

All characters are drawn in broad, simple strokes—all except Glory and Kyle. Their relationship is the most realistic element of the movie; it’s very rare to see unapologetically blue-collar people presented with such understanding and sympathy. (Kyle also has a good scene with Josey’s son.) If the filmmakers could do this, why is the rest of the movie such a stacked deck?

We never even see what Josey’s job is. She’s assigned to “the powder room” with bins of taconite granules, but what does she do there? Why aren’t we given more of a sense of the town? Of working conditions in the factory? Why didn’t the filmmakers simply trust us to see that Josey’s cause is just without so many forcing-the-issue elements? Compare this to “Norma Rae,” made more than 20 years ago. We saw the development of a union organizer, but Norma Rae was never depicted as a saint, the kind of person to whom things happen, who never causes anything.

Charlize Theron works very hard to make Josey believable, but she’s undercut at every turn by the contrivances of the plot, the stereotyped characterizations, and the foolishly ludicrous courtroom scenes. McDormand is also excellent, and Jenkins and Spacek are always reliable. Woody Harrelson strikes a false note, but that’s because the script doesn’t really provide him a character—he’s just The Nice Guy in Josey’s life (barely in).

Hollywood developed a reputation for turning out simplistic movies, reducing important issues to clearly stated (and overstated) ideas that it was hard to disagree with. Sometimes they got it right. In “The Accused,” Jodie Foster was a hotpants cutie who liked to flirt with men—but the movie made it abundantly clear that that did not give the men permission to rape her. The way a woman dresses, the way she behaves, doesn’t make it remotely her fault if men mistreat her. We’re supposedly human beings, not animals driven by their hormones to the point where bad behavior is “understandable.”

That’s the biggest mistake “North Country” makes. Josey is very good, the men who taunt her are very bad. We never see any of these men learn better, as in real life surely some of them did. (There’s an attempt at such a scene at a union meeting, but it’s a day late and a dollar short.) There was no need to make Josey such a paragon, because it suggests that her being so good makes the sexual harassment even worse than if she DID sleep around with some of the men. There simply is no justification for sexual harassment; that should have been the movie’s bottom line.

Everything was in place here—the cast, the locations, the photography, the music—but the script undercuts all the good efforts on the part of the entire team of filmmakers. In real life, real women won this case after a long and bitter struggle. In “North Country,” an angel defeats the devil.

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