North Country
Directed by Niki Caro

Written by Michael Seitzman, based on the book "Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law" by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler

Starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand


North Country

There's a genre - more like a subgenre, really - of films that rehearse a real-life landmark legal case as art instead of document. Certain elements are fictionalized, ordinary plaintiffs are played by stars (and ordinary defendants by other stars), events are pumped up if necessary to dramatic purpose while others are played down, and so on. There's nothing wrong with it; it follows a long and honorable tradition that began when the Greeks did it with their own historical plays about gods and men.

"North Country" is one of those films, and a fascinating aspect of it for me is that it goes so far out of its way to avoid the clichés of the genre that it blows itself up about halfway through the story, and spends its second hour watching bits and pieces of plot and character come floating down afterwards.

The film is based on the true story of Lois Jensen, hired in 1989 as a worker in the Eveleth open-pit iron mine in northern Minnesota and subjected to the most vicious verbal and physical and sexual harassment imaginable. Refusing to 'take it like a man' as do most of the other women, she eventually led and won a class-action lawsuit against the mine. In "North Country" Charlize Theron is Josey Aimes, single mother working at the Pearson mine. She carries what was then known as baggage: with two children, one by an unknown father, she is leaving a husband who beat her, then must confront her own father (Richard Jenkins), who also works at the mine and believes that she is a lesbian, a whore, or worse, for not being submissive. "You're taking away a man's job," he tells her when she applies for a job. Her mother Alice (Sissy Spacek) is no help either. Josie's best (and only) friend is Glory (Frances McDormand), who herself is facing great medical problems.

The film is brutally graphic in showing us the humiliations, the obscenities, the attacks on Josie and the price she pays for it at home and with her 12-year-old son. She meets a returning local hockey legend, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), now a lawyer, and slowly her counterattack takes shape as he reluctantly agrees to help her.

Here, though, is where the script puts director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider") and the cast in what can only be called grave peril. There are so many loose ends to be tied up we might as well be watching a communal Christmas-gift-wrapping party. Will the prime accuser recant? Will the other women come on board? Will Glory live or die? Will Josie's son Bobby come to love her again? Will the mining company cave? Will the union (carefully called the Affiliated Steelworkers in the film so as not to open old real-life wounds) join or oppose her? And about a dozen other questions that mean faster and faster edits and shorter and shorter scenes, leaving bits and pieces of the film flailing about trying to cohere before it all must end properly.

"North Country" is a part of an honorable tradition in films, but in trying to deal with an old story in a new way it stumbles over itself and ends up quickly forgotten. The performances are fine; Warner Brothers surely will promote Theron for an Academy Award and perhaps even McDormand for supporting actress. But the film cannot live up to its own good intentions.