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"NORTH COUNTRY"
(2005) (Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A woman must deal with the ramifications of suing her employer for sexual harassment in the northern Minnesota mine where she works.
PLOT:
It's 1989 and Josey Aimes (CHARLIZE THERON) is simply looking for a better life for herself and her kids, teenager Sammy (THOMAS CURTIS) and his younger sister Karen (ELLE PETERSON), following one too many beatings from her abusive husband. Unfortunately, her traditional parents Hank (RICHARD JENKINS) and Alice (SISSY SPACEK) blame her for her marital woes, leading her to leaving her kids with her best friend Glory (FRANCES McDORMAND) and her husband Kyle (SEAN BEAN).

Having never supported herself let alone her family, Josey needs a high-paying job and the only such game in town is working for Pearson Tacomite and Steel, a northern Minnesota mine. Glory works there -- as a union rep. -- and so does Hank, but neither they nor Kyle are sure she's suited for the work. Nevertheless, she takes the blue collar job, working alongside a handful of other women such as Big Betty (RUSTY SCHWIMMER) and teenager Sherry (MICHELLE MONAGHAN).

It's not long, however, before Josey learns why few women work there. The men, not used to women working alongside them -- especially ones as pretty as her -- immediately objectify her, taunting her with all sorts of sexual comments and come-ons. That includes her immediate supervisor Bobby Sharp (JEREMY RENNER), her former high school classmate and romantic interest who's turned into a chauvinistic, callous man.

Despite Glory telling Josey she needs a thicker skin, all of the sexual harassment -- combined with the lack of concern on the part of the male-dominated chain of command above her -- eventually becomes too much to bear. Pressured to quit, she hopes to enlist the aide of Glory and Kyle's friend Bill White (WOODY HARRELSON) who's just arrived there from New York City in hopes of regrouping his life. Having given up his law practice, he wants nothing to do with Josey's efforts, but she eventually wins him over.

From that point on, and with Bill's help, she must contend with the reaction of her family, friends and former coworkers as she files a class action, sexual harassment claim against the company and its boss, Don Pearson (JAMES CADA), who does everything in his power to discredit her claim and personal life.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Ever since women joined the work force, sexual harassment has been an issue. For decades, it was tolerated, not only due to it being the norm -- referring to the "men will be men" mentality of the time -- but also because the victims of it feared the potential retribution -- from the perpetrator but also coworkers, friends and family -- should they complain.

While it still goes on to this day -- and has even reversed the gender relationship with women being the bosses of men and subjecting them to the same sort of sexually derogatory and discriminatory remarks and behavior -- a pivotal moment in the course of changing attitudes and opinions about it came from a landmark court case from the early 1990s. In it, miner Lois Jensen led a class action, sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer, the first ever of its kind.

The resulting settlement forever changed how companies had to deal with the issue should it occur in the workplace. Not surprisingly (although the amount of time it's taken to hit the big screen is somewhat of a shock), it's also inspired a movie about the event, "North Country," which falls in line with films such as "Norma Rae" that showcase a simple woman standing up to the powers that be to make things better for herself and other women.

Inspired is the correct term since screenwriter Michael Seitzman ("Here on Earth," "Farmer & Chase") has fictionalized the names, time, location and more in this adaptation that's based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler's "Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law." I'm not sure why the powers that be feel the need to include the "based on a true story" label to such films when so much has been changed -- I guess they figure it might sell better in this day and age of "reality" entertainment.

Whatever the case, it's not hard to see what drew director Niki Caro to tackle the material. After all, it's rife with legal, familial and workplace conflict, sexual undercurrents and more, all of which should obviously lead to powerful drama and potential "You like me...You really like me," award-winning moments.

Yet, there's more to it than Oscar bait for Caro who makes her first American film with this outing. And when comparing it to her last offering, "Whale Rider," one can easily see what that is. That 2003 film told the story of a young New Zealand girl who learns of and then battles the sexual inequality that stems from a traditional, male-dominated society.

In this film, the fictional protagonist runs head-first into a different but philosophically similar predicament. Having fled an abusive marriage, Josey -- played terrifically by Charlize Theron -- gets little to no support from her parents. Her father -- Richard Jenkins ("Shall We Dance?" "Cheaper by the Dozen") -- wonders if the husband caught her with another man, while her mousey mother -- the underused Sissy Spacek ("Tuck Everlasting," "In the Bedroom") -- thinks the lout's behavior is due to being unemployed and unfocused.

Finding no love and understanding there, she sets out to support herself and her kids for the first time. Yet, the only gig that pays well enough is in the Northern Minnesota mine where the few ladies employed there are severely outnumbered by the men who've all been hired from the central casting agency of mean and disparaging movie characters.

That's not to say that the real-life men weren't chauvinistic pigs or that such people don't exist today, but the filmmakers have certainly stacked the odds against the protagonist by littering the antagonistic side of the story with despicable characters. Of course, that's all done to raise and accentuate the dramatic conflict bar, but it can't help but feel a little too prefabricated in terms of easy storytelling.

And that's a problem that dogs the film from start to finish. While it has its share of powerful, heartfelt and wrenching moments, not to mention a great cast and some terrific performances, it feels a little too calculated and manufactured. That's not to say that I didn't get caught up in the story and root for the lead to defeat the villains, but I couldn't help but see and, more noticeably, feel the underlying mechanism and its various pulleys, cogs and other machinery.

Some of that involves damaged or soon to be damaged characters played by the likes of Woody Harrelson ("The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," "After the Sunset") -- as the burned out, big city lawyer who returns to the small town just in time to represent the plaintiff after moments of "I don't do that anymore" rejection -- and Frances McDormand ("Something's Gotta Give," "Almost Famous") who returns to regionally familiar territory (think "Fargo") playing the best friend and ally who ends up stricken with the all too convenient disease of the week.

Other problems include some sudden behavioral reversals (mainly meaning Jenkins' father character doing a one-eighty in a contrived if decently portrayed reaction to his daughter's treatment by others); courtroom scenes that are surprisingly dramatically inert before including the rousing, we stand with you moment; and a fractured storytelling approach where the present and flashback scenes aren't melded together well enough to keep the dramatic momentum intact.

Nevertheless and despite those issues -- some of which are more troublesome than others -- what makes the film work is partly the classic underdog tale, but more decidedly the performance by Theron in the lead role. Tackling yet another unglamorous character, the actress makes us believe in and thus care about her as she's subjected to all sorts of harassment from all sorts of people, all of which gets worse as the story and her cause progress. Without any grandstanding, Theron creates a real, flawed person who easily engages the viewer and thus makes us want her to win in one fashion or another.

Performances from the already mentioned supporting cast -- as well as Sean Bean ("Flightplan," the "Lord of the Rings" films) as McDormand's damaged soul husband; Thomas Curtis ("Red Dragon," "Sweet Home Alabama") as Josey's bitter teenage son; and Jeremy Renner ("S.W.A.T." "Dahmer") as the epitome of the harassment -- are solid across the board.

Emotionally powerful at times but a bit too calculated, predictable and wavering in its dramatic momentum, "North Country" tackles an important social, workplace and legal issue with competence and respect, but the overall work is off just enough that it doesn't quite achieve its powerhouse potential. The movie rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 23, 2005 / Posted October 21, 2005


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