In the freedom-fighting movie culture of the 1970s, populist muckrakers like Norma Rae, The China Syndrome, and All the President’s Men drew us into the everyday urgency of injustice. They ignited passions because they connected to the zeitgeist, and audiences felt the relevance of those films in their guts, hearts, and bones. I’m not sure if they’ll feel that same kick of relevance during North Country, a grimly earnest sexual harassment rabble-rouser that begins in 1989, even though the landmark case it’s based on is rooted in events that started in the mid-’70s. The film’s spirit of outrage is genuine, but also more than a bit secondhand.
At the beginning, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), rangy and sharp-boned, with a semi-shag haircut that hangs like a half-lowered curtain over her serious, pretty features, grabs her kids and flees her abusive husband, returning to her hometown in the wintry desolation of northern Minnesota. It’s a stern, devout community, where high school hockey is a religion and people speak in a charmingly eccentric pidgin-ethnic twang, and where everyone, more or less, works at the same place: the local iron mines, a hellhole of smelting danger. Unskilled, and in dire need of cash, Josey, encouraged by her old friend, a union rep named Glory Dodge (Frances McDormand, doing a variation on her chipper moonstruck den-mother act from Fargo), goes to work at the mines. She’s prepared to face the grueling conditions: the acrid smells, the splatters of iron ore. What she isn’t as ready for is her male co-workers, who see the women miners — at this point, a tiny minority — as feminist interlopers who have no right to be taking their jobs. The men’s fury is couched in their belief that hard labor wasn’t meant to be women’s work. Even Josey’s father (Richard Jenkins), a lifelong miner, views her as an invader.
North Country packs a solid familiar punch. An orientation supervisor addresses the women miners with smug derision, and a sex toy gets planted in one of their lunch boxes. One of Josey’s bosses, a former high school flame (Jeremy Renner), assumes he can treat her as his personal concubine; he makes lecherous comments, then a slobby pass, then worse. Directing her first Hollywood feature, Niki Caro, the New Zealand filmmaker who debuted with the righteous if gauzy girl-power fairy tale Whale Rider, stages all of this with grimly sinister matter-of-fact skill, like something out of a prison film in which the new inmates are ritually hazed and abused. At one point, the women find obscene messages smeared onto the walls with excrement. When Josey meets with the president of the mining company to protest this pattern of abuse, the meeting is a sham — a cover-up spiked with threats. Trapped by a conspiracy of male rage, Josey, teaming up with a courtly lawyer (Woody Harrelson), strikes back against the mine by initiating the first class-action sexual harassment suit in U.S. history.
Compared to, say, Erin Brockovich, North Country takes more than its share of factual liberties. The transposing of eras results in a kind of sociological fuzziness, and Josey herself is a composite character, complete with a lurid backstory of victimization. I wouldn’t mind the fictionalization, though, if the film had made her a more vivid personality. Theron plays Josey with an honorable slow-burn weariness, as if fed up with the effect she has on men, but it’s a performance of workaday nobility, one that’s a shade too anonymous to be exciting.
The limitation of North Country isn’t that it overhypes the evil that men do. It’s that the film, as sincere and watchable as it is, never succeeds in portraying Josey and her struggle as more than a hermetic tale of injustice. At key points, we see images of Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings. That watershed event helps to inspire Josey’s crusade, but the audience may well have less of a clear-cut reaction to those clips. In a weird way, North Country is the right movie at the wrong time. It mythologizes the struggle of women to do the most dangerous, rough-and-tumble jobs imaginable just at the moment when a counterrevolution is taking place, as more and more women reconsider whether to sacrifice the workplace in favor of home. Caro touches on the ambivalence of the other female miners toward Josey, but North Country might have been richer, tougher, more honestly liberal if it had revealed a few more shades of gray among the men — perhaps daring to show, for instance, that at least a few of those fighting to keep women out of the mines could have had chivalrous motives, a belief system rooted in the urge to protect. Nothing, though, ever gets in the way of the movie’s advertisement for valor.
2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Charlize Theron); Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand)