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Film review

A victim rises up

North Country is a moving depiction of one woman's victory over sexual harassment. But it's also a song for all who suffer from its devastating effects.

Published October 20, 2005

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A lesser film than Niki Caro's North Country would use only two settings to tell its story: the mineral mines where female workers are sexually harassed without mercy and the courtroom where they fight the system allowing it happen. Then the movie would puff its chest and boast of its social importance.

Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman add a third setting, a collection of households where such sexist persecution does its worst damage. North Country is about an important issue, but even more importantly, about the people who suffer, rationalize or ignore the emotional and physical abuse that sexual harassment causes. The results are deeply, undeniably moving.

North Country is based on a book with a title that tips off the ending: Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law. But the movie isn't as clinical or nondescript as either title. This is crusader cinema at its finest, a story to enlighten anyone who hasn't seriously considered the effects of sexual harassment, and perhaps soothe victims by showing someone fighting back and winning.

That someone was Jensen, who in 1986 led a reluctant group of co-workers in a lawsuit against employers who allowed such degradation to occur. The movie cheats a bit by suggesting it happened almost concurrently with Anita Hill's claims of unwanted sexual advances by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In fact, the out of court settlement won by Jensen and her co-workers wasn't finalized until 1999, nearly a decade after Hill's testimony. The wheels of justice turn slowly outside Hollywood.

Jensen's name has been changed to Josey Aimes for the movie, and the time line condensed. She declined to sell the rights to her story or act as the film's consultant. Yet nothing changes the gut-punch impact of her abuse or the importance of her eventual triumph.

North Country is a working-class feminist morality tale eclipsing Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich in that narrow category of filmmaking.

Academy Award winner Charlize Theron (Monster) plays Aimes and will be a solid contender for another gold statuette. This isn't merely a beautiful actor getting grubby for a part. Theron's commitment to getting this story right is clear, and Caro, whose Whale Rider dealt with gentler male oppression, is right with her. Theron strikes that delicate balance between victim and avenger, avoiding the cliches of overplaying either.

We meet Josey when she's escaping a wife beater with her two children, Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and Karen (Elle Peterson). They find shelter at her parents' home, but not exactly sympathy. The reactions of her parents, Hank (Richard Jenkins) and Alice (Sissy Spacek), reflect the backward atmosphere that allows men to believe they can do anything they wish to women. Hank figures Josey was kicked out for adultery, while Alice sees and hears no evil.

Josey gets a bit more support from longtime friend Glory (Frances McDormand), a miners' union representative, and her husband Kyle (Sean Bean). But they're still resigned to the way things are for women on a job site dominated by men. Glory and Kyle have a friend, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), who left their Minnesota town to be a big city lawyer and returns in time to plead Josey's case in court.

Either home could be stuffed with cliches, but Caro and Seitzman are smarter than that. Hank's taciturn demeanor changes as he watches his daughter being ravaged. Alice will realize the same thing has happened to her on a friendlier basis for years. Glory and other women like her will become aware of their rights as human beings. Bill won't merely be a hunky distraction, as Aaron Eckhart's role served in Erin Brockovich. There's also an absorbing rift between Josey and Sammy, who is barely a teenager and has already soaked up the chauvinism.

North Country is wise about its subject, and perhaps even smarter about how to depict it. Caro pulls few punches about the job site harassment, with filthy language and obscene practical "jokes," plus a flash of violence that thankfully doesn't go too far. It would be bad enough if the male miners only believed women threatened their livelihood and safety. But their manhood is on the line and, like cornered animals, they will attack without conscience. Caro makes the abuse harsh enough to matter, although probably a few shades lighter than the truth.

Yet, for all its wincing material, North Country is also an entertaining film with occasional comic relief from McDormand (Is there a better female buddy in movies today?) and a wisp of budding romance between Josey and Bill. The bad guys, led by Jeremy Renner's sharp portrait of a slime ball, get what they deserve, although they could have been better people with a few better choices. Chris Menges' cinematography makes grime and labor seem poetic, while Caro's New Zealander curiosity notices things a home-grown filmmaker might have overlooked.

By all counts, North Country is a winner.

North Country

Grade: A

Director: Niki Caro

Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan, Jeremy Renner, Sean Bean, Thomas Curtis

Screenplay: Michael Seitzman, based on the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law

Rating: R; harsh profanity, sexual situations, violence

Running time: 123 min.

[Last modified October 19, 2005, 10:43:05]

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