North Country

"North Country" is the story of a landmark sexual-harassment case brought as a class action -- the first one ever tried that way -- by a female employee of a Minnesota mining company. Michael Seitzman's screenplay reorganizes the facts into a conventional rah-rah drama in the "Erin Brockovich" vein, centered on Josey Aimes, a working-class heroine whose struggle to overcome her own painful history is, as the movie progresses, at least as important as her legal action.

And Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes.

By now it shouldn't come as a surprise that Theron can act, but in "North Country" she is exceptional. Ably supported by Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean and Frances McDormand, Theron delivers a focused and intensely powerful turn that, in addition to being more or less a lock for another Oscar nomination, also elevates the movie above its formulaic origins.

Director Niki Caro is the same crowd-pleaser she was when she made "Whale Rider," never missing the chance to tug on a heartstring or define a character as pure walking goodness -- or badness, if the shoe fits. And she bungles the final scenes in an odd sort of way, as though she didn't know where to take the movie once she reached a certain point.

Still, give her credit for confronting the harshness of the material head-on: The miners' unrelenting sexism is portrayed as genuinely hateful, and truly disturbing -- although the fact that the action is set just 15 years ago is even more disturbing, when you think about it.

Thing is, though, when Theron is on the screen you can't think of anything else. She fills in the blank spaces of her character with sheer screen presence, while avoiding vanity tics that are the safety valves of lesser performers. And unlike "Monster," there's actually a movie built around her performance. So much the better.

Warner's enhanced-widescreen DVD is a little spare in the supplements, although what there is is pretty good: Ten minutes of deleted scenes give McDormand's character arc a little more pathos -- and give Theron and Harrelson's characters a much more complicated relationship -- while the featurette "Stories from the North Country" rather surprisingly confronts how heavily fictionalized the movie is, juggling footage of the production and interviews with the cast and crew with testimonials from Lois Jenson, the "real" Josey, and the women who stood with her. Pity they couldn't sit them down for an audio commentary.

STUDIO: Warner Home Video
RELEASE DATE: Available now
PRICE: $28.95
TIME: 126 minutes
DVD EXTRAS: French audio dub; English, French and Spanish subtitles; deleted scenes; production featurette.

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