- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

“North Country,” inspired by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s book “Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law,” condenses more than 20 years of legal history into two hours of emotionally jolting entertainment.

The window into director Niki Caro’s world is Charlize Theron, the Oscar-winning South Africa-born actress who apparently thinks her looks are an artistic encumbrance. For “Monster,” she let her figure go and wore disfiguring gobs of makeup to convince us she was the Floridian highway killer Aileen Wournos. Here, she hacks up her hair and submits to layers of grime, sludge and muck as Josey Aimes, a welfare mother turned Minnesota mineworker turned sexual harassment legal crusader. A wonderful, weepy performance, it is nonetheless undermined by Miss Theron’s too-obvious slumming among the lumpen ranks of a frigid upper-Midwestern burg.

Right from the start, Josey is a bruised and bloody mess, courtesy of a husband we glimpse only once through the watchful eyes of her (but not his) son Sammy (Thomas Curtis) as the couple shares one last argument.

Desperate to make a living on her own and feeling none too welcome under her parents’ roof (Richard Jenkins plays her disappointed father, Hank, while Sissy Spacek plays her meek mother, Alice), Josey hears of high wages to be had at a local mining company. The work is dirty, Dickensian and dangerous, but it beats the dole. Before long, Josey is putting a down payment on a house (not a nice one, but hers) and taking her children out to restaurants.

No sooner does Josey pull herself up from her bootstraps than she is faced with the foul reality of the industrial workplace: It is dominated by men even in the advanced year, 1989, in which this movie is set — and men can talk like pigs and act like worse.

Miss Caro (her last movie was 2002’s great sleeper “Whale Rider”) is unsparing in her depiction of male brutality. What begins with ogling and pawing escalates to hostile graffiti written in bodily waste and climaxes in physical assault. When it comes time to formally lodge a complaint with management and the union, Josey’s female co-workers (played by Rusty Schwimmer, Michelle Monaghan and Jillian Armenante) zip their lips rather than risk their livelihood, making counterclaims about Josey’s “sordid sexual history” look all the more plausible.

Josey’s case is unfortunately taken up by an in-over-his-head Woody Harrelson as Bill White, who has returned to Minnesota after love and lawyering left him embittered and lonely in New York. The dependable Frances McDormand, as the respected mineworker and union rep Glory, is like gristle on the edges of Michael Seitzman’s script, although even her role is sunk in pathos by movie’s end.

As moving as it can be, “North Country” (its title a nod to a song by famous Minnesota iron-town native, Bob Dylan, whose music dominates the movie) rings hollow as it goes on, owing to an unresolved tension between the affected ordinariness of actors like the English Sean Bean (as Glory’s husband Kyle) and the windy, Manichaean clash at the movie’s heart — progress vs. cavemen.

If nothing else, the movie is a welcome antidote to the latte feminism of women such as “Perfect Madness” author Judith Warner, whose sympathy seems to extend no further than her circle of educated Washington mothers with rich, supportive husbands.

If modern feminism is worth its salt, it’s the women of places like “North Country” that deserve its energies.

**1/2

TITLE: “North Country”

RATING: R (Profanity; sequences involving sexual harassment, including violence and profane dialogue).

CREDITS: Directed by Niki Caro. Produced by Nana Greenwald, Jeff Skoll and Nick Wechsler. Written by Michael Seitzman, based on a book by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. Cinematography by Chris Menges. Original music by Gustavo Santaolalla.

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.northcountrymovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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