Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) takes her two young children Karen (Elle Peterson) and Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and moves back to her North Minnesota home, away from her abusive de-facto husband. Desperate for work and encouraged by her mining trucker friend Glory (Frances McDormand) she takes a job along a handful of other women at the local mine company, where the men resent the women and degrade them, insult them and intimidate them. They're taking men's jobs and invading a man's world. Management behaves no better, but most of the women are too scared for their jobs to protest. Josey engages reluctant lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) to sue the company for sexual harassment - under a new workplace law. Meanwhile, Sammy also resents her, especially as he doesn't know who his father is. [Inspired by the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States (Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines) in the 1980s.]
Review by Louise Keller:
'She's kinda girlie to be a miner,' says Sean Bean's Kyle to his Frances McDormand's Glory, when Josey Aimes leaves her abusive husband and takes a position at the local mine in her North Minnesota hometown. 'Work hard, keep your mouth shut and take it like a man,' she is told, when it is patently clear, that all the women working there are being intimidated and subjected to every kind of sexual harassment. It's a great dramatic role and it is easy to see what drew Charlize Theron to the role of single mother Josey Aimes, who is determined to make it on her own.
The similarities to Erin Brockovich are obvious, yet North Country plays like a glossy soap opera, despite strong performances from a superb cast. It's a change of pace for Whale Rider director Niki Caro and Theron displays all the fearlessness of her character, as she unglams herself and heads for the mine, where protective glasses, a helmet and shapeless overalls are her only protection against the miners' vulgarities. It's an ultra tough world, and the women working there are terrified to stand up for themselves, in fear of losing their much needed jobs. The facts are nothing short of shocking in this powerful story, as the women are subjected to all kinds of obscenities, including having semen deposited in their lockers. Frances McDormand is all heart and soul as the independently minded truck driver who befriends Josey, and her tragically woven-in story is also left to haunt us.
Every part of Josey's life is a battle ground, from her relationship with her abusive husband, her dismissive father and resentful illegitimate son. Family relations are as icy as the fallen snow. Showing great determination, she is alone as she stands up to the men and the establishment, as she and the women at the mine are terrorised.
The action is told in two layers of flashback, as Josie takes the mine company to court, and we are taken back in time to her school days, when she encountered sexual harassment for the first time. Represented in court by Woody Harrelson's ('I'm going through a bitter phase') lawyer, Josey's courage brings about a shift in the whole dynamic of her life. Although North Country lacks the emotional fanfare of Erin Brockovich, it's a heartening and uplifting story about the underdog showing how the strength of spirit conquers all.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
North Country fuels our sense of indignation at injustice from the start, when Josey (Charlize Theron) first appears, bruised and bleeding from another beating, and leaves the man who did it. But she is going from the frying pan to the fire, getting a job reluctantly forced on the mine company by new equal opportunity legislation, thanks to the feminist lobby. Theron does a good job balancing the victim with the determined single mum in her character, and there are no showy simulations of feminist agendas - she plays it as young a woman seeking respect, a single mother seeking to feed her kids. She has had a tough life, as we learn, but she doesn't play for sympathy; the script comes close, at times, though. All the cast deliver strong performances, notably young Thomas Curtis as her troubled son.
In the early scenes, director Niki Caro cuts back and forth from the eventual court case, threading them through the narrative of Josey's journey through the quagmire of her troubled life. This ensures that the film never turns into a courtroom drama, as she weaves together various layers of the story. These include incidents and characters that enrich the central plot, and make the film more a character driven drama than a simple echo of an early female liberation victory.
The decision is a good one because it enables Caro to fashion a complex film from the various strands, without losing focus or devaluing the main theme of the film - the beginning of a change in American society about the perception of women, and the start of a new respect for them.
As a drama, the film is a Hollywood product, pushing all the right buttons and revelling in its triumphant structure. But to its credit, Woody Harrelson as lawyer Bill White (pity about the name), does articulate one searing truth: no matter if Josey wins her case in court, it isn't going to change the attitudes of the men overnight, and there may well be some unpleasant consequences.
This isn't said at the end of the film, where it would sour the ending, but as a warning before he takes on the case. Filled with enough emotional granularity to maintain interest, North Country is telling an old story (both literally and metaphorically) but it does it pretty well, if slightly enlarged and perhaps even simplified for the sake of the financiers' pacemakers.
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NORTH COUNTRY (MA)
CAST: Charlize Theron, Elle Peterson, Thomas Curtis, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Jeremy Renner, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, James Cada, Rusty Schwimmer, Linda Emond, Michelle Monaghan
PRODUCER: Nana Greenwald, Jeff Skol, Nick Wechsler
DIRECTOR: Niki Caro
SCRIPT: Michael Seitzman (book Clara Bingham, Laura Leedy)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Chris Menges
EDITOR: David Coulson
MUSIC: Gustavo Santaolalla
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Richard Hoover
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 2, 2006
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video
VIDEO RELEASE: June 14, 2006