For every woman who has been grabbed and groped against her wishes, hounded and worse, told to shut up and smile, told to shut up and take it like a man, told to shut up if you know what's good for you, the new film North Country will induce a shiver of recognition and maybe a blast of rage. A wobbly fiction about a real pioneering sex-discrimination case, the film is an unabashed vehicle for its modestly de-glammed star, Charlize Theron, but, much like George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, it's also a star vehicle with heart -- an old-fashioned liberal weepie about truth and justice.
Written by Michael Seitzman and directed by Niki Caro, North Country takes its inspiration from the first sexual harassment class-action suit in the US. The suit pitted a handful of female workers against their employer, Eveleth Mines in northern Minnesota, and hinged on both physical and psychological abuse that would have sent most people, men included, running for the exits. Lois Jensen began working at Eveleth Mines in 1975 soon after a consent decree forced the company to hire women, only to find herself bombarded by lewd comments, vulgar graffiti, hard-core pornography and the unsolicited, at times threatening advances of male colleagues. One man broke into her house as she slept; another stalked her with the sort of delusional ardor that fuels the John Hinckleys of the world.
The women eventually won the suit, making history in the bargain, but only after an excru-ciating, maddeningly drawn-out court battle of the sort that, generally speaking, works against the exigencies of compelling drama. North Country, which evokes the songs by Bob Dylan, a Minnesota native who grew up on the iron range where the story takes place, is one of those Hollywood entertainments that strive to tell a hard, bitter story with as much uplift as possible. That the film works as well as it does, delivering a tough first hour only to disintegrate like a wet newspaper, testifies to the skill of the filmmakers as well as to the constraints brought on them by an industry that insists on slapping a pretty bow on even the foulest truth.
Directed by: Niki Caro
Starring: Charlize Theron (Josey Aimes), Frances McDormand (Glory), Sean Bean (Kyle), Richard Jenkins (Hank), Jeremy Renner (Bobby), Michelle Monaghan (Sherry)
Running time: 123 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
Starting in the late 1980's, the film tracks the education of Josey Aimes (Theron) from her days as an eager new hire to her weary tenure as a combatant against a hostile, nearly all-male workforce. Even before Josey signs on with Eveleth, Caro, who made a small splash with the mite-sized art-house favorite Whale Rider, tells us everything we need to know about this scrapper, including the fact that she's used to being pushed around by men. When the film opens, this veteran of those wars fought on the domestic front is peeling herself off the floor where she has been viciously laid low, though she is also soon on the road with her kids. Josey is used to being pushed around, but she will be pushed only so far.
Like the other female miners, Josey takes a job at Eveleth Mines because it pays better than any pink- or other blue-collar gig in the region. Poverty forces these women into the mine, where the air is thick with dust and misogyny. Despite the hazards, Josey quickly learns the pleasure of cashing her own check, a novel experience after years of dependency on both men and her parents (played by Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins). Money and fear -- fear of losing family, home and independence -- keep the women punching the mine clock. Money and fear also keep their heads bowed and mouths closed, even as they are subjected to veiled and open threats.