Hollywood loves it when beautiful actors morph themselves into working class, average people. It’s even better if you do that and are in a message movie. Charlize Theron won an Oscar last year for her riveting portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, the focus of the film Monster. She donned some truly hideous makeup, but Theron possesses the talent to not only morph physically, but mentally as well. Sporting a fem-mullet and an attitude, Theron is back in the absorbing and relevant North Country.
Theron portrays Josey Aimes, single mother of two who has been through two divorces and has just moved back to Minnesota to live with her parents and try and make ends meet one way or another. She has a promiscuous reputation among the townsfolk because she has two children with two separate fathers, neither of which she is on good terms with. Josey finds out from her friend, Glory (McDormand), that the local mine is now hiring females. Josey’s father, Hank (Richard Jenkins), works at the mine but maintains that it is a man’s domain and no women should be working there. Desperate for work, Josey applies and gets a job working at the mine.
The mine employs about a half dozen females, all of whom receive what can only be described as horrific treatment by the hundreds of male employees. They are harassed in just about every way possible, and it gets to the point where Josey is ready to take legal action. The other women have no interest, as causing a fuss will only makes things worse for them at work. Josey summons the help of Bill White (Harrelson), an ex-hockey player who is also a lawyer. He takes the case just because “it has never been done before,” and the result, as we all know, is a landmark sexual harassment ruling that now places punishment for any type of sexual harassment in the workplace in the United States.
Michael Seitzman’s screenplay is a fictionalized account of the Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines case of 1984, but the circumstances are the same and the film is nevertheless very powerful – even if it does bog down in its third act. Seitzman is very adept at developing his main characters and gives them a true-to-life feel instead of making them mawkish caricatures. His third act, in which the film relaxes into a stereotypical (and sometimes laughable) courtroom groove, is a tad disappointing after the brilliant buildup of the first two acts. Also, the abusive men working the mine often come across as exaggerated (at least I hope so), and I have a hard time believing that essentially every man working at the mine has the mindset of a perverted rapist. If this is the least bit true, on behalf of all men I apologize.
Niki Caro’s direction is focused and understated, as it should be. She has made a nice transition from the wonderful Whale Rider to this larger project. Caro captures the cold tundra of Northern Minnesota with a keen eye and beautiful detail.
When all is said and done, however, this is Charlize Theron’s film, and she is fantastic. It is a role that one cannot help but compare to her part in Monster, but I feel this one to be more accomplished. Theron effortlessly displays every form of emotion under the sun, and I was fascinated by and connected to her Josey Aimes from the get go. She has plenty of Oscar-bait moments that could earn her another nod. Meritorious supporting work is turned in by the always-entertaining Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, who nicely balances his boyish charm with his tough-guy lawyer.
North Country is a story that we should all be familiar with and understand the outcome of. Even with some quibbles, the exceptionally focused direction by Niki Caro and another electric performance by Theron makes North Country a relevant and important film that deserves attention.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 123 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language.
Theatrical Release: October 14, 2005
Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Michael Seitzman. Based upon the book “Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law” by Clara Bingham & Laura Leedy.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Elle Peterson, Thomas Curtis, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson