2½ stars (out of four)
Some movies delight us by surpassing negligible expectations. Others torture us by falling well short of high hopes. "North Country," sad to say, belongs in the latter category: a potentially great moviewith talent and plot points to sparethat settles for being just okay.
Its failings certainly can't be linked to a lack of effort; the film wears its earnest heart on its sleeve for 123 melancholy minutes. Director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider") takes on the landmark 1988 Jenson vs. Eveleth sexual harassment suit with admirable energy, and does a great job of making us feel awful about a truly grotesque situation. What she doesn't do so well is tell the story with nuanceof character or emotionwhich keeps this supremely well-intentioned movie from delivering the emotional punch that would seem to be its birthright.
Charlize Theron, in her now trademarked de-beautified mode, plays Josey Aimes, a mother of two whose life appears (wrongly) to have reached its nadir. She's broke, unemployed and beaten down by life; we meet her as she's running away from her abusive husband, whose rage has left her with a black eye and a deeply wounded psyche. When she arrives on her parents' doorstep in Minnesota's mining country, her father (Richard Jenkins) takes one look at her battered face and demands, "He catch you in bed with another man?" Josey blinks once in disbelief and turns away, stunned. Her hurt speaks to a lifetime of failings in her father's unforgiving, judgmental eyes.
It's not the first time Josey has disappointed her fatherand it certainly won't be the last. At the urging of her friend Glory (played with characteristic wit and candor by the inimitable Frances McDormand), Josey takes a job at the local mine. She joins a small group of women who brave the dual horrors of a dangerous job and a venomous work environment, all in the hopes of bringing home a decent salary. The men they work with are, with very few exceptions, a bunch of spectacular idiots, whose distaste for the women who dare take on "men's work" is expressed in a variety of ways, ranging from moronic to flat-out cruel. The women are taunted, intimidated and violated, all under the watchful and resentful eye of the mine manager. The women are expected to "take it like men," and keep their mouths shut. Anyone who complains is accused of whining, and becomes the target of ever-escalating attacks, which are difficult to watch. (One of the women involved in the real-life lawsuit was quoted in the Duluth News Tribune as saying some of the harassment depictions were "actually a little soft.")
Josey, stretched to the breaking point before she ever sets foot in the mine, is an easy target. She takes up the battle (alone) against the mine, and goes it alone, enduring unspeakable insults and increasing harassment, not the least of which come from her female co-workers and members of her own family. This is what the film does most successfully: reflect the sexual politics of the time and place, chronicling the universal and intimate conflicts between the genders and the generations. The other women are scared of losing their jobs, and her son is tired of being shut out of a social life because his mother is swiftly becoming the town pariah. Her father, a lifelong miner makes it clear he disapproves of her work at the mine, going so far as to side against her in battles with the most horrible of her co-workers. He's not happy, clearly, that his daughter sees fit to do a man's jobit's an affront, he insists, to his role as provider.
Josey's story, inspired by a real-life court case, could easily have taken place in any workplace where men jealously mark their territory: a law firm, a hospital or a newsroom. In several scenes, televisions are tuned to the Anita Hill testimony, providing a none-too-subtle backdrop for Josey's own attempt to speak truth to power.
Theron does her level best to make Josey believable (although the accent doesn't do her any favors). She's a powerful actor, and it's a gutsy (read: award bait) performance, but there's not much range to it. We're given anger, more anger, humiliation tinged with anger, and, for dessert, unutterable sadness. Granted, Theron's in a tough spot: On the one hand, she's playing a woman whose life is pretty much devoid of joy. On the other hand, the constant threat of tears dulls their effect when they do fall.
Woody Harrelson is a welcome presence, dialed down as rarely before. He plays a local hockey star turned lawyer who's running away from a failed marriage back East. The emotional baggage doesn't help him much when it comes to dealing with Josey, but the law degree does. After expressing his misgivings, he takes her case; he'll file the first-ever sexual harassment class action lawsuit. The defendant: the town's primary employer.
"North Country" prompts no shortage of anger and rage, as it should. There is nothing more compelling, on paper anyway, than a few decent people struggling against a monolith of ignorance, fear and hatred. But while the film showcases moments of enormous power, there is something missing; perhaps it's subtlety, or perhaps it's the emotional connection the movie so desperately wants to make, but in the end, can't quite achieve.
Directed by Niki Caro; screenplay by Michael Seitzman (inspired by "Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law," by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler); cinematography by Chris Menges; edited by David Coulson; production designed by Richard Hoover; music by Gustavo Santaolalla; produced by Nick Wechsler. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:03. MPAA rating: R (for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language).
Josey Aimes - Charlize Theron
Glory - Frances McDormand
Kyle - Sean Bean
Alice Aimes - Sissy Spacek
Hank Aimes - Richard Jenkins
Bobby - Jeremy Renner
Sherry - Michelle Monaghan
Bill White - Woody Harrelson