According to one character in this film, female miners are all lesbians. If mines are full of tough lesbians who look like Charlize Theron, maybe Judge Jennifer Malkowski should be hanging around more mines!
"She's kinda girlie to be a miner."
Sampling aspects of Erin Brockovich, Fargo, Boys Don't Cry, Norma Rae, and many more to tell the true story of the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit, director Niki Caro's North Country is an engaging film whose worst crime is feeling comfortably familiar.
Facts of the Case
Josie Aimes (Charlize Theron) rocks her "north country" Minnesota mining community with a class-action sexual harassment suit against the Pearson Taconite and Steel mining company that employs her. Before she starts working at the mine, she moves back to her hometown after escaping an abusive husband. Her friend Glory (Frances McDormand) tells her that the mine pays six times what her shampoo-girl job at the local hair salon does and Josie jumps at the possibility of being able to support her family and move out of her parents' (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) house.
She slowly realizes that the better pay entails certain sacrifices and must endure near-constant taunting, "jokes," and threats of physical or sexual violence from male co-workers. When a former high-school boyfriend goes too far in this respect, Josie decides it is time to act and convinces "the only lawyer [she's] ever met," Bill (Woody Harrelson), to help her file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all the women working in the mine.
In many ways, North Country is an actors' film—more accurately, an actresses' film. Theron's Oscar-nominated performance certainly deserves a look, though it also deserved to lose to Reese Witherspoon's turn as June Carter in Walk the Line. Theron knows when to lay on the emotion and also when to hold back, making some of the quieter moments of the film just as enjoyable as the inevitable big speeches. Spacek's role is small, but is a pleasing reprisal of her troubled, strong-but-vulnerable mom from the wonderful In the Bedroom. McDormand was the highlight for me, though. She's just so darned likeable when she plays a strong woman and does that Minnesota accent!
Michael Seitzman's screenplay has subtle strengths and weaknesses in scripting the film's minor characters. Some—like Glory's husband and Bill—seem underdeveloped for the amount of emotion and meaning they are asked to convey, but one of his smartest moves is the way he allows the minor characters to create an atmosphere of prejudice and fear in the town that goes beyond the mining men's resentment of the women "taking their jobs." Throwaway lines like one miner woman's frequent labeling of people as "homos" or Josie's father's assumption that she "wants to be a lesbian now" because she wants to work at the mine accomplish a lot in very quickly.
Caro handles the actors and screenplay adeptly. The director of Whale Rider seems to know how to capture the spirit of obscure places and tight communities, as she demonstrates in her caressing, aerial shots of the ragged mining landscape and the frightening energy she brings to the big union meeting. She, or someone, also has the sense to cut some of the more clichèd lines and plots (available in the additional scenes), such as the seemingly inevitable point at which Josie must verbally confirm that, no, she does not hate all men.
Speaking of feminist stereotypes, one of the central questions in the film—and, I would argue, about the film itself, as well—is the extent to which women should "have a sense of humor" about these issues. On Josie's first day, her manager greets her by saying, "The doc says you look darn good under those clothes." Josie looks rather perplexed while the other girls suppress embarrassed giggles. The manager then asserts, "Sense of humor, ladies: rule-o numero uno." The men who harass Josie and her female co-workers often laugh their comments off and insist that the girls should be able to "take a joke." These scenes resonate strongly with the oft-hurled accusation that feminists don't have a sense of humor—which, in context, almost always really means, feminists don't have a sense of humor about sexist remarks. I can attest from personal experience that there is a certain species of men out there who love to "tease" us feminists about women belonging in the kitchen, yada, yada, yada. As unfunny and tired as those comments are, the ones these male miners make are far less amusing and far more offensive and, obviously, nothing to laugh about.
What is less obvious is how seriously the film should take itself. Erin Brockovich was a drama about serious issues that had a lot of jokes and light moments. North Country is not and that makes a certain amount of sense to me. Caro has the guts to make this a straight story and refuses to cut the dramatic and political tension with well-timed comic relief. Apparently, Warner Bros. does not have the same guts, judging by the theatrical trailer which manipulates footage from the film to increase the humor of the few light moments in the film. It seems to want to sell the movie as another Erin Brockovich—ultimately, a feel-good movie with plenty of humor and simple, untroubling feminist undertones. Caro's film doesn't really make you feel that good and it certainly presents a complicated picture of female solidarity (or the lack thereof). If anything, Caro doesn't take those themes far enough, backing off by the end and giving in to some of the lazier courtroom drama conventions.
Warner Bros. does the film technical justice with its transfer. The picture is sharp and the subtleties of the grays and browns Caro uses to color the mine come through nicely. The sound is clear and balanced, too. The extras are limited, but to the point. Plenty of deleted scenes flesh out some of the characters and confirm the director's wise restraint in her shorter final cut. There is no commentary track, but a 16-minute documentary featurette—including interview with Caro, Theron, McDormand, several of the real-life plaintiffs in the case, and the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW)—provides at least some background on the true story. I would have been interested in knowing more about which parts of the story were fictionalized. The featurette did shed some light on why the film was made now when sexual harassment issues are not exactly at the forefront of most of our political consciousnesses. Those involved explain that for them the film was largely about paying tribute to the women who came before us, whose bravery really did improve working conditions for all the generations of women that would follow them.
Though its format can feel a little stale, North Country is still a worthy follow-up to Niki Caro's beautiful film, Whale Rider, but it sure didn't make me cry like that one did!
Judge Jennifer Malkowski is more sympathetic to the women of North Country than the real-life judge in their case. Both judges rule in favor of these mining ladies, though the real ones are commended for breaking more ground legally than their Hollywood counterparts do filmically.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Making-of Documentary "Stories from North Country"
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